What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
I grew up in a small neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa. Our home had a creek running through the backyard where I did a lot of digging, playing in the mud, and playing hide and seek with neighborhood friends.
As was customary at the time, we were told to go outside and come back for lunch and dinner. When I was around five years old, my friends and I wanted to dig a hole to China, halfway across the world from our hometown. We only got a few feet down and stopped when we found lots of crawly bugs, but it was such an important project for us. I remember how powerful and exciting it was to have the freedom to go out and play without much adult supervision and to be surrounded by other people as a child.
What values guide your personal life and your work?
A value that guides my life and my work is to be of service to other people. I have been a psychiatrist my whole career, and I still take care of patients every day. I also get to talk to people about ideas that I think matter in my role as a researcher and Zen teacher.
A lot of my work is about understanding the experience of being human and helping other people connect to what it means to be a human. It’s about looking at what life is really like as opposed to what we imagined it's supposed to be like. It is of real value to me to look at life as it really is, instead of the stories we tell ourselves and each other about what life is supposed to be.
A really powerful lesson that I have learned from our Harvard Study of Adult Development, and after decades of following thousands of people throughout much of their lives, is that there are so many different ways of living life. And it is important to name that, while we are often billed as the study of happiness, no life is happy all the time. No life is without challenge and difficulty. We can give each other the impression that if we just do all the right things, we can be happy all the time, and that's just not true for anybody.
Directing the study also made me pay more attention to my relationships. I could work nonstop, but it is very clear to me, based on our findings about human connection, that I would be missing my life if I just spent the whole time working. I am much more deliberate about making sure I'm in contact and making plans with friends, rather than just letting everything take care of itself because what we find is that relationships don't just take care of themselves. They need active tending.
When did a person or experience change your mind about an idea or belief?
There are so many times that people and experiences have changed my mind. One thing about research is that you want to be surprised and to find that your ideas are wrong.
When I was young, I thought that getting old looked depressing. But an important finding from my research is that as a species, we get happier, and our moods improve as we age. This is a function of the brain aging: as time passes, some of the brain regions responsible for the bias toward negative information decrease in size. In our youth, we scan the horizon for threats to increase our chance of survival, but that bias switches as we get older and become more aware and remember positively-valenced things.
In addition, it also has to do with a sense of limited time. As we enter middle age and beyond, we realize that life is short and death is real. We start prioritizing our well-being and the present moment, and we stop deferring gratification as much as we did before.
What are you working on right now?
We are returning to the second generation in the Harvard Study of Adult Development and asking them follow-up questions from the survey that we did several years ago. We are also focusing on new research questions like their experiences during the pandemic and the use of digital communications and social media in their daily lives. We are collecting the data now and are excited to see how these individual stories can help us generate new hypotheses about the impact of the digital world and the pandemic on our lives.
We are now thinking that it may make sense to not reach out to the third generation (the grandchildren of the original participants) but to let other studies carry the ball down the field. The wide age range among the third generation presents a challenge: while some are as old as in their 50s, others are not yet born. At this point, we would not know the types of questions to ask in the study that would be relevant to everybody in that group.
What is giving you hope? What positive visions do you have for our future?
What is giving me hope is that the basics of being human are pretty constant. The things that matter most to us are the things we remain concerned about generation after generation.
Despite how bleak everything looks, we are actually in one of the least violent times in human history. We know that people are pretty kind and generous most of the time, so I’m hopeful that the division and anger we see today are part of a cycle of history repeating itself but will pass eventually. The media frequently point our attention to what's wrong, because it gets our attention, sells newspapers, and gets us to click on links. Yet most of what’s right is just happening all day long.