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Episode 658
The Doctor's Farmacy

How Our Relationships Can Impact Our Health And Longevity

Open the Podcasts app and search for The Doctor’s Farmacy. If you’re viewing this site on your phone, you can just tap on the

Tap the subscribe button and new shows will be added to your library.

If you’re using a different device, our show is available on the following platforms.

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Creating a good life and finding happiness might require a different path than you thought. Everyone has the intention to live well and feel happy, but so many of our choices deviate us from those goals. 

Investing our time and energy into our relationships might be the key. Loneliness is a main measure of unhappiness, and it also happens to be a stressor and risk factor for disease. 

I’m so excited to talk to Dr. Rober Waldinger on today’s podcast episode, all about fostering better relationships to live a longer, happier, and healthier life. 

Right off the bat, Dr. Waldinger shares that relationships are perhaps the thing we have the most control over when it comes to creating better health and more happiness. We discuss the connection between those things, as well as actions you can take right away to cultivate more meaningful relationships.

Focusing on this part of your life doesn’t have to mean starting fresh. We get into how to initiate a deeper relationship with your current partner and get to know them even better, as well as healing negative aspects of a relationship like grudges. 

Just as we practice good eating habits or a regular fitness routine, we also need to practice social fitness. Dr. Waldinger shares his favorite strategies for working out our social lives to take advantage of the power of community as medicine.

It’s never too late to put more effort into the relationships you have and cultivate new ones. Not only will it support your longevity, but you will feel happier and more fulfilled throughout your lifetime. 

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I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD
Mark Hyman, MD

Here are more of the details from our interview (audio):

  1. The number-one life choice you can make today for future health and happiness
    (5:08)
  2. The connection between our relationships and our health
    (11:29)
  3. Cultivating relationships and well-being
    (13:41)
  4. Getting to know your partner better
    (23:44)
  5. Practices that promote happiness
    (36:50)
  6. Letting go of grudges and healing relationships
    (39:47)
  7. Strategies for social fitness
    (43:32)
  8. Navigating romantic relationships
    (53:01)
  9. Community as medicine
    (56:57 )
  10. What matters most in life
    (1:07:43)

Guest

 
Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman, MD is the Founder and Director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of Cleveland Clinic's Center for Functional Medicine, and a 13-time New York Times Bestselling author.

If you are looking for personalized medical support, we highly recommend contacting Dr. Hyman’s UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts today.

 
Dr. Robert Waldinger

Dr. Robert Waldinger is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, and cofounder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. Dr. Waldinger received his AB from Harvard College and his MD from Harvard Medical School. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he directs a psychotherapy teaching program for Harvard psychiatry residents. Dr. Waldinger is also a Zen master (Roshi) and teaches meditation in New England and around the world. He is the co-author of the book The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness.

Show Notes

  1. Get a copy of Robert’s book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.

Transcript Note: Please forgive any typos or errors in the following transcript. It was generated by a third party and has not been subsequently reviewed by our team.

Introduction:
Coming up on this episode of the Doctor’s Farmacy.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
How could your relationships at age 50 predict whether you’re going to get type 2 diabetes or whether you’re going to get arthritis? How could that possibly happen?

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Welcome to Doctor’s Farmacy. I’m Dr. Mark Hyman, that’s Farmacy with an F. A place for conversations that matter. Today, we’re going to talk about something really important, which is how to have a good life and be happy. If you’ve ever wondered about how to get there, it might be different than you thought.
Today, we are honored to have an extraordinary guest, Dr. Robert Waldinger, who’s a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He’s the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital. He’s a co-founder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. Dr. Waldinger received his undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard.
He’s a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he directs a psychotherapy teaching program for Harvard residence. He’s a Zen master. Yep, A zen master, [inaudible 00:01:02] and teaches meditation in New England around the world. He’s a co-author of the book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Welcome, Dr. Waldinger. How are you?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Thank you. I’m really glad to be here. I am good and it’s good to see you and good to be here.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I’m so excited to dive into all these questions because when people start their life, they always have the intention to have a good life. They always have the intention to be happy, but often the choices we make deviate us from that path toward a happy, good life.
I want to start by asking you the question that you open your book with, which is, if you had one life choice to make right now that would set you on the path to future health and happiness, what would it be?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
It would be to invest your time and energy in people, in your relationships with other people.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Really, it’s not about what you’re eating or how much you’re exercising or making a lot of money or advancing yourself in the world, being famous, whatever it is that people think might be linked to happiness and a good life. It’s your connections, your community, your relationships.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, let me unpack that just a bit because when you said it’s not about what you’re eating or exercising, it is. In fact, our study, our 85-year study of these people shows that taking care of your health is hugely important. Let’s bracket that and say, no, healthcare self-care is really important, but the making a lot of money, the getting famous, the winning the Nobel Prize, that stuff doesn’t make you happier.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
In your TED Talk you were very direct about this. You were saying essentially that it isn’t any of those things, it’s those relationships, but that loneliness was a killer. Loneliness is such a high risk factor for disease and death. It’s striking. I think we’ve had Dr. Vivek Murthy, who’s the current surgeon general on the podcast before, and he wrote a book about this and looked at all the research about this.
I’m curious, you did this study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. You didn’t start, it was started 80 years ago, but it was fascinating. They took young boys from the poorest, the almost underserved neighborhoods in Boston and a bunch of Harvard dudes, more privileged group. You studied these people over a period of 80 years, which is remarkable generations of people.
It’s hard to do a study like that for 80 years, but somehow you guys have managed to keep it going. This loneliness framework was really interesting to me because if you’re saying that the keto good life is connections and relationships and happiness, the converses that loneliness is actually a huge risk factor, right?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Absolutely. Loneliness, as you know, is a subjective experience. You can be lonely in a crowd, you can be lonely in an intimate relationship, you can be perfectly happy on a mountaintop as a hermit. It all depends on that subjective sense of whether I’m connected enough to the people I want to be connected to. If I am connected enough, then I won’t say that I’m lonely.
I think that what we’ve learned, and we’re doing more research on this, is that loneliness is a stressor. That loneliness actually keeps us in chronic fight or flight mode, keeps our bodies revved up slightly because we’re more vigilant to threat when we are lonely. That seems to contribute a lot to breaking down health as well as happiness.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Literally, it’s a physiological stress to be lonely and isolated.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Exactly.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Wow, amazing. This brings me to the question of what is the biology of all of this? You’re a psychiatrist and we were chatting before we started the podcast that typically psychiatrists pay no attention to the brain, and focus on the mind. Whereas neurologists focus on the brain and not the mind, but it’s all connected.
How does connections and relationships foster health? How does loneliness biologically create disease and shorter lifespans? That’s fascinating to me as a functional medicine doctor, I want to know the why and the cause.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, let me give an example. Let’s say you have something really upsetting happen during your day and you find that you’re thinking about it, you’re ruminating about it. Then, at the end of the day, there’s somebody you can talk to. Maybe somebody at home, or maybe you call somebody up, somebody who’s a good listener, a sympathetic listener.
You can literally feel your body calm down as you get to talk about it. You can literally feel your body return to equilibrium from that fight or flight mode, that agitation. What we know is that when you’re upset that your body secretes stress hormones, circulating levels of cortisol go up, inflammation goes up. Then, the body’s meant to return to equilibrium.
What if you don’t have anybody to talk to about what’s upsetting you? What we find is that good relationships seem to be stress regulators.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s quite amazing. I think I know noticed when I was researching in my book on longevity that I found a study that cuddling actually changes your epigenome, that just physical affection and connection. It’s true when you’re with people who you have a deep connection with, who love you, who their nervous system is also grounded, I would say. I just feel my nervous system start to calm down at the same time.
I think that the data on all this really around sociogenomics, which is what is the biology and the effects of our social relationships and connections on our gene expression and everything downstream from that, you talked about like inflammation. It’s quite amazing. This is really an important study because wasn’t focused so much on what makes people sick, but what makes people thrive.
What makes people live a long time and have a happy life. What were the surprising and interesting findings that you had from the study? What are the important lessons that you learned in about relationships in particular, but also in general when you had this 80 years of data on all these men who you studied?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, the finding that relationships keep us happier and healthier was a surprise at first. It began to emerge in the 1980s. At first, people running our study didn’t believe the data because we know the mind and the body are connected. How could your relationships at age 50 predict whether you’re going to get type 2 diabetes in older age? Whether you’re going to get arthritis?
How could that possibly happen? Then, other studies began to find the same thing that’s where we begin to believe it. No one study, even my famous longitudinal study, 85 years, no one study of this kind can prove anything. If you have many studies pointing in the same direction, then we begin to have much more confidence. We began to say, “My gosh, this is real. This is powerful.”
I think one of the things that surprised us is the finding that loneliness and poor quality relationships are as damaging to your health as cigarette smoking, as obesity. These things that we consider so dangerous for us are no more dangerous than isolation and loneliness.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s so interesting. We have such a quote “connected society,” but we’re still often so isolated and disconnected from each other. We have social media, but it doesn’t feel very social. It often drives more stress in our nervous systems than actually healing from the nature of the way we interact.
It’s a weird moment I think in history where we’ve lost our tribal communities, we’ve lost our connections, we live in these nuclear families or these single parent families. I was a single parent. We navigate life in these little bubbles of isolation. It’s unusual to see today big extended families and communities and you have to really work at it.
I wonder how did these people actually cultivate it? What were the life skills and hacks that allowed them to keep, maintain, build and nurture these relationships that actually determine their health span and their lifespan?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, one thing to point out is that not everybody was successful at cultivating this. Some of the stories in our book, we have stories of our real participants and their names are disguised to protect their privacy, but we have stories about their lives, and not all the stories are happy. Not all the stories have happy endings because some of these people weren’t successful.
The ones who seemed to get it that making relationships a priority no matter where you were at home, at work, out in the community, that focusing on people really made a difference, really helped you cultivate this kind of well-being. Some of our folks got it right away, some of our folks learned that lesson as they got older, as they had more life experience.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Thinking about my father and how isolated he was. He was married, but he focused on his career and focused on being successful. Lost a lot of his friends and ended up really without a lot of friends as he got older. Then, I invited him to this men’s work. I’ve done men’s work for 30 years. Then, we had this thing called Spirit Camp.
We’d go up to this sort of camp like a YMCA camp on top of this mountain in the Berkshires. I invited him to come, and my friend invited his father to come. They were both the same age, 79 years old, and they were both New York Jews from Brooklyn. They both were atheists. They both joined the Navy at 17. They were very similar and they were both tall, interesting characters.
They bonded and developed this incredible friendship. I saw how much it enriched my father’s life. Even on his deathbed, this guy Jerry, his friend, was calling him on the phone. I just realized how important those things are, and we often don’t prioritize them in our lives. I think it sounds like the people in the study who prioritized them actually did much better.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
We asked our original people this question, we said, “Who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared?” Some people couldn’t list anybody.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Oh my goodness.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Some people who were married couldn’t list anybody. Then, some people could list several people. I think what your dad found was a friend. He found a real friend who would call him when he was sick. Who would be there, who would have his back. I think what one of the things we’ve learned is so powerful from our study is what we call in my jargon secure attachment.
When you feel like there’s somebody in the world who’s got your back, who you could go to if you were really in trouble, that’s what each of us needs in order to thrive, in order to feel okay about our lives.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s true. I don’t want to make this about me, but just reflecting on how true this is. I remember when I was a little boy, I was very isolated. I was a weird, nerdy kid, and hid in my room read a lot of books. It’s paid off in the end.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Yeah, me too.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Paid off in the end. I really didn’t have anybody who saw me as a kid. Then, I went out west and I went backpacking. I was 18, I met this guy on the top of this mountain and we were both going to be in Ithaca in the fall and we bonded and we really had this incredible friendship for 45 years. I’m in Baja and he just left. We had this mountain biking trip here and we talked.
He’s been such an integral part of my life throughout everything and has helped me feel like I have that secure attachment. I have somebody to call. Now, I’ve obviously developed many, many more people I can call, but having that gave me a sense of being okay. Somehow life was quite different before and after that experience. I don’t know how to tell people to form those attachments or how do you find those people, how do you build that.
I just wonder if there were any insights from the study about how to actually create it. I say, “I want you to eat more vegetables. I got that. I want you to exercise more. I got that. I want you to have deeper connections and relationships.” How do you get here to there if you’re in that isolation stage?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, one thing is to be active. You and your friend had to arrange that he would come be with you in Baja. You both had to go out of your way. You had to carve out the time, you had to make the arrangements, you had to be active. I think one of the things many of us, myself included, can fall into is the sense of, “My good friends are my good friends. The friendships will take care of themselves. I don’t really have to do anything.”
What we came to understand from our research is something that we’re thinking about as a social fitness analogous to physical fitness where you work out one day and then you don’t say to yourself, “Well, I’ve done that. I don’t have to do that ever again.” You don’t do that.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I ate one vegetable. I know I’m good now.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Exactly, so you don’t do that. You say, “I need to have a routine. This is a practice both of self-care, of diet, of exercise, but also a self-caring practice of tending to important relationships. Part of it is actively maintaining the relationships that you’ve built to make sure they stay close, get closer. Another then is if you’re isolated, to find ways to have contact with people.
Often one of the best ways is to have contact around a shared interest. You happened to meet your friend on a mountaintop, which meant that you were both interested at least that day and [inaudible 00:16:56]. You could connect around the trail around nature. You could share things. What if you volunteer for a cause you’re passionate about?
You might be shy, but if you’re right next to people who also care about climate change or about saving the world in some other way, or about gardening or about golf.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Fishing or whatever.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Fishing, anything that what you find is that the shared interest provides a place to start conversations. By starting those conversations, you can begin to get to know someone. I’ll say one more thing, which we find constantly is that bringing curiosity is a huge benefit to making a relationship. We all love it when somebody’s curious about us.
Mark, if I ask you more about yourself, you’ll want to talk about it. You asked me about my zen life and I told you about it a little bit before we started this podcast. What we find is that when you ask people about themselves, they feel your interest, they feel seen, and when they get to tell you about themselves, they feel known. If you can just bring curiosity, you don’t have to bring anything else.
I notice something in your Zoom background. Notice something that’s on a coworker’s desk, a photo or a little object, just be curious and you will strike up conversations that turn out to be meaningful.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Robert, I think you just hit on something so fundamental, which is that all of us want really one thing which is to be seen, known, heard and gotten. How rare that is and how simple it is to actually create that experience for someone by just being curious about them. Tell me more about yourself. I went to dinner with some friends here in Mexico. I said, “How did you guys meet? What’s your love story?”
Then, it was an hour and a half conversation. It was great and it was so entertaining and fun. They felt like we cared about them and it deepened our connection. I think it’s not that hard to do, but so many of us are just tired and burnt out and focused on what we have to do, getting through the next thing and on our own lives.
Stopping that and taking a breath in and actually figuring out how to get curious about people in your life will 100% create real connections. That’s a such a beautiful, beautiful nugget. I think we lost the art of questions. I have a friend Andrew, who’s like the master. He’ll just go in and ask you these piercing questions that literally probably may or may not want to share with anybody.
They get to the real essence of what matters and what you care about, and who you are. Now, they’re just talking about the weather, whatever. It’s having a more deeper sense of inquiry about another person’s heart, soul, and mind. It’s a beautiful. That’s a great nugget.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
The other thing we can do is we can do that with people we think we know really well. Research tells us another interesting thing. How much do you know your partner? Let’s say you’re in an intimate partnership. What they find is that we’re most attuned to our partner’s feelings when we first get together. Think about it, you’re trying to figure out, “Is this person into me? What’s going on with this person?”
You are really paying attention. Then, what they find is that partners know each other less well, they know each other’s feelings less accurately the longer they’re in the relationship. You would think it would be the opposite. One of the tips that we find we can give to people for livening up old relationships is to bring that curiosity to a relationship to somebody you feel everything about.
One of my zen teachers taught me this. The instruction in a meditation was what’s here right now that I have never noticed before? If you could bring that curiosity to having dinner with your longtime partner, that could get you into a much more interesting and interested space.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s so true. I’m trying to remember the name of this incredible little game that my friend Esther Perel created, and this is beautiful. I’ll put in the show notes. Essentially, it’s a game where you have to pull out a card and then you ask questions about your partner or about your friends. You get to these deeper things. I’ve done this before with people I’m very, very close with.
I just learned stuff I wouldn’t have known about them. There’s that New York Times article about the 36 questions to ask to fall in love those questions.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
I haven’t seen that.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
They’re great. We’ll put those in the show notes too. It’s great. It’s really questions about asking to discover what someone’s like. I just want to take a little bit of a left turn Robert here, because I think the other side of loneliness is happiness. The book you created about the study, this 80-year study that detailed the things that you found about creating a healthy, happy, long life.
Was science the antidote to loneliness and the antidote to what creates disease, which was happiness? Then, the question there is how do we get to happiness, and what creates happiness? In your life, you were sharing with me before the podcast that about 18 years ago you had the opportunity to meet someone who was a zen master, what we call a roshi, a teacher essentially.
It’s changed how you saw the world, changed, how you thought about yourself, changed the quality of your life and happiness. Buddhism is really a description of the mind and what’s creates suffering. The science of suffering, it’s important to understand, to create the science of happiness. Your book is really on the science of happiness, but your zen studies really help you in a way get there through this science of suffering.
How to relieve suffering and why we suffer, and what the cause of suffering are? I’d love for you to maybe take us down that journey of how as a psychiatrist from Harvard, you got into this seemingly world that doesn’t fit with Freudian psychoanalysis in my mind. I’m like how do you reconcile that? Where did you get to? Who are you now? How is this incredible project that you’ve been involved with informed all of that. Sure, it’s a lot, I know.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
It’s a lot, but it’s a wonderful question. I’m so glad, thank you for the curiosity, Mark.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Well, just as a little background, everybody, I don’t know if people listening know, but in my major in college with Asian studies and my focus was on Buddhism. I did a lot of studies of Zen Buddhism and all kinds of Tibetan Buddhism and practiced. I’m really very curious about this kind of connection.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, what happened for me, I grew up in a family that really valued education. They loved it when I got As and when I get awards in school and stuff. What I began to realize, we read a poem once by Yates about a man who comes across a fallen statue in the desert of some great conqueror. The muse that he does, that Yates does, is about what’s happened to this great conqueror.
He was so mighty in his time, and where is it all now? I begin to really feel this fact that most of us are not going to be remembered 100 years from now. It’s all going to go away. What really matters? Here I am, a guy who spent his whole adult life at Harvard.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You never left. You’re undergraduate, you’re in medical school. You’re teaching there.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
I have a resume As long as you’re arm, I’ve won lots of awards and none of it, I’m happy with the work I did and yes, I’m proud of some of it, but that’s not what really matters. It’s not what really warms me. This problem of why do we all care about some of these things like badges of achievement or wealth, that really don’t matter ultimately?
Why is it that we humans do that? Buddhism helped me. Sitting and meditating and realizing how my mind creates all these stories about what’s important, stories that don’t matter, don’t amount to a hill of beans, that was so helpful and so healing for me. I could let go of some of the pressure to achieve to be something special because none of us in the deepest level, all of us are special and none of us is special.
All of us are just part of a great big universe doing what it does. This has been an enormously healing perspective for me. It’s helped me let go of some of my preoccupations.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s amazing. How does it inform your psychiatric practice?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
It does, it does a lot. My specialty is psychotherapy. I’m a little bit unusual as a psychiatrist because a lot of psychiatrists do mostly medication work. I do mostly psychotherapy, although prescribed medication. What it does is it helps me bring in and ask people about the perspective of 10 years from now when you’re looking back, how important is this going to seem?
80 years from now when people remember you, what do you want them to remember? It’s that existential perspective that zen helps me bring. I find that it helps many of the people I work with put things in a bigger perspective, and calm down about some of the small stuff.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s interesting the little tangent here, but the studies on meditators, I’m sure you’ve read the book, altered traits by Daniel Goldman and his colleague who’s studied the MRI of meditators who are Olympic meditators who literally 40,000 hours of meditation and what their brains look like. And this is a part of their brain that diminishes the strength of the ego.
The ego part of the brain is called the default mode network. That is also what’s quieted down with these new psychedelic therapies, these psilocybin, MDMA compounds that seem to do very similar things that are you being used in psychiatric treatment like depression and anxiety and PTSD and addiction. It’s fascinating to me how we’re in this world where we’re starting to rethink about how we deal with this trauma and suffering.
It’s hard for people to think about meditating for 40,000 hours living in a cave for nine years I think people do that. I certainly haven’t and I don’t think I can. I think there’s ways that people can get to calming that down. Even in meditation practice alone, that does help you to have perspective on the monkey mind they call it, and the ways in which our thoughts create suffering.
I think what you get that you realize, wow, I can change my level of happiness and my well-being by changing my relationship to my thoughts and not thinking of them as things or as these fixed entities that actually are real, but that are just constructs of my mind that create suffering for myself. I could change those.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
You don’t need 80,000 hours of meditation to get this as I think you know. Some meditation can give us those experiences of feeling connected to the bigger world and not locked in. There’s a phrase that David Foster Wallace used where he would say, “We are trapped in our skull-sized kingdoms.”
What meditation helps us do and also some of these psychedelic drugs, is to really experience the feeling of connection to something much bigger and that feeling doesn’t last. You can’t be on psychedelic drugs all the time. You wouldn’t want to be meditating all the time and you can’t dictate what kind of experience you’re going to have on the cushion.
Having those experiences gives us something to touch back to remember. There’s that perspective too. When I’m all caught up in my little personal drama, I can remember, I know what it feels like to be connected to this bigger world.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Then, part of that’s where happiness comes from. I mean, I think the question is how much of happiness is really under control Sometimes I’ve heard and read some of the research that shows that whether wherever you are, your happiness standpoint is fairly fixed.
If you win the lottery or if you get your legs chopped off on an accident, you revert back to whatever your baseline level of happiness is after the initial stress of the event. You’re suggesting that there’s a way to actually shift our set point in happiness. How do we do that?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, I think through these practices that we’re talking about. Meditation can do that, but also meditation experiences. Yoga for some people it’s through music. Where you really get beyond the self and just get absorbed in what you’re doing. For some people it’s gardening. There are just a whole lot of ways that you can be very present in the moment and time just flies when you are.
That finding those ways, not everybody needs to meditate. Not there’s no one size doesn’t fit all. Finding a practice that really connects you with the present moment and with the world is one way to help change your happiness set point. Also, taking care of yourself. Much of your work is about taking care of the body, of building health. One of the things we know is that when you take care of your body, we suffer less.
Our mood is better, our well-being is greater. These are ways that we can influence that set point that we all have.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I think that’s true. I think we alluded to before, but the mind body mind is sort of an artificial distinction there. The brain function also determines your mind’s function. The disorder or order of your neurons and then your neuroplasticity, and the level of inflammation and level of toxins and the hormones and the microbiome.
All this stuff that we talk about in functional medicine has a profound impact on the brain function, which has an effect on your mind’s function. I always say it’s a lot easier to get enlightened if you’re not mercury poisoned, your thyroid’s working, and you’re not B12 deficient. I understand it’s a lot easier. I want to loop back to this whole concept of social fitness.
I think I understand in the general concept, which is the social fitness is really the metric of how much and how good and how well your relationships function and the quality of those relationships. The question is, I know how to get my body in fitness by how do I keep in good shape from the perspective of my social fitness?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, couple of things. One is to not be plagued by grudges, to not be plagued by feuds. If you think about it, we can invest so much energy in angry division from the people in our lives, especially in families. Boy, there are so many family feuds and they take such a toll on us. One of the things that we can do is first of all to recognize that conflicts are inevitable in any relationship where people care about each other.
You’re not always going to agree. There are going to be arguments. Then to notice, “How much is this taking a toll on me? How much space is it occupying in my mind? Could I go back and try to ease that? Could I try to work out my differences with somebody in my life who’s really preoccupying me?” To do that can go a long way to freeing up energy that we’ve been wasting on feuds often that are not about meaningful things.
Take that 100 years from now criterion and say, “Is it really going to matter if he didn’t invite me to Thanksgiving 12 years ago?” There’s that, now again, that it’s also true that we need to step away from abusive relationships. I’m not saying every relationship can be healed, that’s clear. Many relationships are just chronically unhappy and acrimonious.
What I would say is if you can invest the time in healing, in working out differences, it’s a great investment.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
That’s a great piece of advice. I just said before you go to the next bit of advice, it reminds me of the saying that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
That’s exactly it. To really first know that, to know how much it hurts. It’s like I think the Buddha likened it to picking up a hot coal, when you realize what it’s doing to you, how much it hurts you, let it go.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s forgiveness, compassion, understanding the other person’s perspective, just trying to get them without necessarily having to be right or wrong, but understanding what led to that behavior or that action, or that whatever.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Exactly. In zen we talk a lot about the mind of right and wrong and is there a way to step beyond the mind of right and wrong where it’s not important to be right or wrong in so many instances?

Dr. Mark Hyman:
That’s so true. I had a great business coach once, he said, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be in relationship?” I was like, “That is good.”

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
That’s exactly it. It’s really key to think about that and to try to bring more compassion and acceptance to the fact that we’re all going to be different and we’re not going to please each other all the time. These things can be worked with and often men did.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You’re going to talk about some other things. I don’t know if it connects to this model you have in the book called the Wiser Model, W-I-S-E-R of reacting to really emotionally challenging situations. Why it’s so helpful because it is, when you’re talking about social fitness, you talk about forgiveness and compassion, trying to understand this perspective, letting go.
There’s more to this. Take us through this model that you have of what actually creates social fitness. I’m imagining that’s what this is.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Well, the Wiser Model actually, it was developed initially by a psychologist named Ken Dodge who was trying to look at how kids can get better at social relationships in the schoolyard for example. What he developed was this system that now we’ve dubbed the Wiser Model, which is really a way of slowing down your processing of a difficult situation or a challenging situation.
Let’s say something ambiguous happens, somebody gives you a look and you don’t understand it, or they send you a note saying, “I need to talk to you right away.” You don’t know why. There’s a big blank screen. Well think about all the ways our minds can fill in the blank screen and say, “Oh my gosh, he wants to talk to me because he’s mad at me. He wants to talk to me because I’m going to be fired. You can just do all [inaudible 00:39:02]

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I’m getting a raise or I’m so great. Tell me how great I am. The same thing.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Something happens at a family gathering and you don’t understand why the person did what they did. The Wiser Model is a way of simply slowing down your response. It starts with it’s an acronym. The W is really just a way of saying watch. First of all, look at what’s happened, watch. See, what just happened? This person said, “I need to talk to you right away.”
They had a serious look on their face and watch what your mind does with it. I’m saying, “Oh my gosh, they’re mad at me, they’re going to call me on the carpet for something.” Then, think about, okay, what are some of the other possibilities? Maybe this person needs to talk to me right away because their kid’s in trouble and they want some advice.
Maybe they just got a health scare. Just think about all the other possibilities rather than going into that meeting that talk saying, “Oh my God, they’re going to call me on the carpet. First watch and then think about, “What could this mean?” Well, it could mean a whole bunch of different things that this person wants to talk to me right away.
Keep all those possibilities in mind and then you think, “How do I respond?” Let’s say you get this message saying, “I want to talk to you right away. What are some of the possibilities?” I could say, “I’m sorry I can’t talk to you right away because I’m scared.” You could say, “What’s wrong or I didn’t do anything.” There are all kinds of ways you could respond. The select is you select, well what would be a good response in this case?
It might just be, “Sure, happy to talk to you, when’s a good time?” Rather than getting all defensive or all worried about something that may not exist. Then you engage. Then, you choose your response like a friendly, yes, happy to talk, let’s make a time right away, you engage. Then, you see what happens. You see what the meeting is like and you reflect back and say, “Actually, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. It was something different.”
When that person looked like they were mad at me, actually they weren’t, they were just upset about something happening in their own life. What this is the Wiser Model is just a way to get us to slow down, really pay attention, really choose how we’re going to respond rather than doing the first knee-jerk thing.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Respond rather than react.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Respond rather than react. Then, to look back and say how did that work out, so that we learn from it. Sometimes, I do send that angry email response and then it’s like, “Oh my gosh.” The important thing is when you screw up, which I do sometimes to reflect back and say, “That didn’t work, I’m not going to do that again. I’m going to do something different.”
We want to keep learning from our experiences and we’re not going to get it right all the time.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s so true. I think my experience is that your thought creates a feeling or emotion that creates an action, and there’s multiple steps in there and they often are just collapsed, they just are in nanosecond. We think they’re all one thing, but you’re talking about slowing that whole process down.
It reminds me of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning where he said between stimulus and response there’s a choice, and in that choice lies your freedom. We have an opportunity to check in and just stop that automatic reactivity. That is our limbic brain, our reptile brain, just creating this fear response, fear, fight, flight, freeze, whatever it is, I think those things are fixable.
The question I would have for you is for people listening is how do you slow down? Do you take a breath? Do you have a rubber band you snap on your wrist to remember? What do you do? It’s in that moment, it just reset.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
First of all, it depends, sometimes we just have to respond. You see a challenge and you just have to, like someone pulls out in front of you and you have to step on the brake. I mean you don’t stop and think, “Well, how could I respond to this?” You don’t do that. Sometimes you just respond and then you look at it later. Sometimes if you can buy time, buy time.
The temptation is to respond right away with the email when someone puts you on the defensive, so stop. To immediately say, “I got to do this.” If you can buy time, would it matter if I slept on this and if I responded tomorrow morning, if you can do that, sleep on it. It really makes a difference because the world can look very different 12 hours later, 24 hours later.
If you can do that, and often we can take time if you can’t take time and sometimes even with a person, let’s say you’re in a conversation and I say something upsetting to you, you might be able to say, “I don’t really know how I feel right now about that. I don’t know how to respond. Can we talk about this again tomorrow?”
Can I just have a few minutes or an hour to think about this just to ask for time. Most of the time people will give you that time. Most often they will. You’re saying, the Viktor Frankl observation is so important that you want to give yourself the time to have choice. To first of all see, “There are options and here’s the option that I think might be the best.”

Dr. Mark Hyman:
In the study you did the Harvard Study of adult development, it’s 80 that you’re doing then maybe we’ll be done for another 80 years.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
We’re still doing it.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Did you find that the people who were able to do that better naturally ended up having happier, longer lives and also better relationships? Did you measure for that or look for that at all?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Yes, we did it indirectly. We didn’t ask them how often do you use the Wiser Model?

Dr. Mark Hyman:
No, no, no. [inaudible 00:46:13]

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
No, I understand. The people who could reflect and say, “Well, I think this person may have done this because of that, because they were struggling with this.” The people who can really try to put themselves in someone else’s shoes try to entertain multiple possibilities that those were the people, this is what comes under the rubric of, under the umbrella of emotional intelligence.
If we think about Dan Goldman’s whole big category of emotional intelligence, it’s these kinds of skills that we’re talking about with the Wiser Model and other skills as well. The people who had those skills were the most successful in their work lives too, as well as at home and in the community.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Yeah, it’s so true. You mentioned something earlier on in our conversation about relationships and marriages and how being even in a relationship, if it’s not one that’s nourishing or loving or connected, if it’s toxic or abusive or just unhappy, how that can be actually more of a detriment to your health than actually being alone.
The question I have is from these studies that you did and the study that you’re doing, how do you find that people had healthy romantic relationships? How do we nourish romantic relationships? Those are often the most challenging. For us, the most difficult to navigate and where our old traumas and our old beliefs, and our old woundings as children often emerge and come out in technicolor. How do we navigate that? How do these people navigate that?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
That’s such an important question. How do we navigate relationships? One of the things that I think is most useful is the concept that no relationship is going to serve all our needs. There’s a colleague of mine, Eli Finkle, who’s written a book called The All-or-Nothing Marriage. What he talks about is this ideal, especially in the West, in the 20th and 21st centuries where we have this romantic ideal that we’re going to find the partner who does everything for us.
Who supplies us with all our needs, needs for sex, fun, and companionship and intellectual stimulation. What we know is that no one relationship can provide all those needs. That’s highly unlikely. I think first recognizing that if there’s nothing wrong with needing to have other relationships that provide us with some of what we need.
If we don’t go in with the expectation of, “Why can’t you be more of this for me?” That can go a long way to easing some of the pressure we feel. Some of the worry we feel that, “Well, this isn’t a good enough relationship.” The idea, the expectation could be, “I’m going to get much of what I need from this intimate relationship, but not all of what I need.”
We’re each going to find things elsewhere. Then, two other concepts. One is conflict is inevitable, inevitable. It’s not a matter of do we argue? Do we disagree? The real question is can we develop ways of navigating disagreements, so that we both come out feeling. Neither of us feels like we’ve lost, neither of us feels shamed, that we both come out feeling like we’re okay with each other and with ourselves.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
What else? There was another thing you were going to say.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Oh gosh, one was that conflict is inevitable. The other thing is that we change. My field is adult development and if you think about it, think about how much you’ve changed since you were in your twenties. There are many ways in which you are quite different and what you care about is quite different. Remember that you’re going to change over time and your partner is going to change over time.
The question is how can you grow both separately and together, rather than assuming, “Well, you have to stay you to be exactly the same person you were when we got together because that can’t happen.” Expecting change, expecting conflicts, and finding ways to work them out and expecting that you’re going to get some of your needs met in other relationships.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Is that what you found in this study that people had a diverse array of social connections and it wasn’t just like one person, but they had a community that supported them to feel these social network that helped them live a long time?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Absolutely. One of the things we know from our study and others is that all kinds of relationships contribute to our well-being. You don’t have to be in an intimate partnership to get these benefits that I’m talking about. Friendships, family relationships, also casual relationships. We’ve started studying [inaudible 00:51:54]

Dr. Mark Hyman:
You don’t mean an affair?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
No, no, I don’t mean an affair.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Like someone at the grocery store.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Exactly, someone at the grocery store who checks you out and you see over and over again. The person who you get your coffee from at Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, the barista. Those little hits of positive energy that we get from saying hi to each other from asking, “How’s your day going?” Really wanting to know that those little hits of affirmation make a difference.
We don’t want to downplay the importance of those casual connections that we have. Even talking to strangers makes us happier.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s true. When I was younger, I loved going up to random people and just digging in and finding who are you and what’s your story. It’s just fascinating whether it’s a homeless person or whether it’s someone on a train or a bus. There’s always a moment where we live in these little bubbles.
Even when we’re in public or we’re contracted into our phones these days. I try to make an effort of just having these juicy little interactions where our common humanity is recognized. Where we feel like a little bit of a sense of connection to another human in the greater human family. It’s a very powerful medicine, I would say.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
It is medicine.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I worked a lot with Rick Warren’s community-based, faith-based wellness program. We did it in groups in a church. The basic message was community is medicine, food is medicine, but community is also medicine. That’s what I found when I went to Sardinia and Icaria. Some of the blue zones, that these deep social connections and relationships they’ve had.
They’re so determined of their quality of happiness. I see it even for myself. I talked about this before in the podcast, but during COVID we all were isolated and I realized I had a whole group of men friends and I would see periodically and often not together, but most of them knew each other or friends were also really close friends.
We’ve been friends from between anywhere from 45 to 25 years in the group. We decided to meet every week for a couple hours on Zoom. It’s been the most amazing thing because it’s like touchstone where every week we get to check in, we get to see each other. We celebrate each other’s wins. We cry with each other, we challenge each other, look at our crap and shit together.
It’s such a beautiful therapeutic experience. It’s like therapy, but it’s just the ability to actually be with people who see you, love you, know you, and get you. It’s so simple and it’s such a neglected thing in our society today in this book The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness is a reminder that this is the neglected medicine that we have available to us.
That can help us both live healthier, longer and longer lives and happier lives. It’s all connected, health, happiness, longevity. It’s so important and it’s absolutely an important reminder of how to live this good life.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
What we know Mark, it’s such an important point because what we know, for example, is that when you are more connected to other people, you take better care of your health. It matters to you more because staying healthy for someone else matters. When they did a study of people in retirement, what they found, they did this set of public service announcements trying to get older people to exercise.
Particularly, older women who were retired. When they told them about all the dangers of not exercising, it didn’t move the needle at all. Nobody exercised more. When they showed pictures of grandmothers holding babies and said, “Be there for the people who matter to you.” Exercise rates went up. What we find is that when you’re more connected and you’re more aware of those connections, you take better care of yourself.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
That’s amazing. I think it’s really true. You’re only as the reflection of the five closest people in your life in terms of your health, your habits and happiness, and if you’re all your friends are just eating at McDonald’s and watching soap operas all day, then you’re likely not going to be as healthy.
If all your friends are going to yoga and meditating and eating healthy food and hiking, you’re going to be drawn into that. I think it’s really true that we’re not chameleons per se as human beings, but we like to belong. We all have a longing to belong and longing to connect. Like you said, find those places and people in the community where you have something in common with, where you shared interests, where you’re active.
It’s really an active process to build relationships, get out there, do stuff. I think it’s hard because when you’re lonely and isolated and depressed, it’s hard to actually come out of that to go do something. It’s sometimes challenging for people, and especially in this world, it’s so divisive and disconnection is getting even worse and worse, it troubles me. I think this book is such a good reminder of what we have to do to actually live fulfilled and happy lives.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
If I’m really disturbed by the divisiveness as you are, I mean a lot. One of the things I’ve come to realize is that there are people I can listen to who make me feel more open to the world. There are other people I listen to who make me feel more shut down.
If we can keep turning our attention, giving our attention to the people who help us feel more open to the world and to possibility and to others, that’s the place to offer the most precious thing we have, which is attention. To turn away from those voices that make us feel more frightened, more closed off.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I think you just hit on something so profound, which is the quality of our attention to others, the quality of our attention to ourselves. The ability to be curious and interested in others and not self-absorbed is actually what creates happiness.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
One of my zen teachers has this quote that I love. He said, “Attention is the most basic form of love.” It’s John Tarrant. Man, if you think about it, what do we have that’s more precious than our undivided attention? Also, these days more and more rare to give somebody our undivided attention.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
It’s so important and that’s quality of listening. There’s actually a skill to listen. Listening to someone without judgment, with curiosity, with openness. Without having your narrative running in your head about what you’re going to say about your stuff or whatever it is. I’m guilty of that as anybody else, the more I learn to drop myself.
I don’t even talk about myself, I know myself, I know what’s in my head, but I had such a deeper, richer experience when I inquire, like I said at dinner with these friends the other night. I have this just a deeper sense of this human being. I felt enriched by his story and her story, and other things they shared about their spiritual growth and their development and how they’re navigating things.
It adds so much to me by actually being present and curious. I recently had a rude reminder of the habits that I can fall into, which is writing this book and recording the audiobook and writing my PBS show. It’s being super busy. I depleted myself and I couldn’t be present for the people in my life. They reflected that back to me and they were right.
I’m like, “If I was out running on fumes I couldn’t show up.” Part of actually having high quality relationships is self-care, is actually rest, is actually nourishing yourself, so you can show up and be whole when you meet somebody and connect with somebody.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
It’s so important. One of the reasons why I have never let my zen practice go is because it’s one of those places I keep coming back to that grounds me, that reminds me attention is so important. Being present for my life and for people is so important. If there are ways you can find to remind yourself of that doesn’t have to be meditation, it could be other things.
That’s such a key reminder so that you stay on a path that’s going to keep you healthy and present for the people you love.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Beautiful, before we close, what other insightful lessons were there in the study of adult development that you did at Harvard that’s been going on for 80 years. What were the other nuggets you may want to share before we wrap up and get to the end of happiness or the beginning of happiness?

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
This is one I really like. When our original folks were in their 80s, we asked them to look back over their lives and we asked them, what are you proudest of? What do you regret the most? There were really consistent themes, and these were hundreds of people. The consistent theme for what they were proudest of was about relationships.
People invariably said, “I was a good parent. I mentored people at work and it really mattered to me. I was a good friend.” They never said I won this prize or I rose to this position, or I made this amount of money. Nobody mentioned that.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I answered all my emails. My outbox is empty.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
My outbox is always empty.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
My inbox is empty, whatever.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
Nobody did that. The most common regret was about emptying your inbox. Many people said, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time at work and I wish I had spent more time with the people I love and care about.” There was one more regret, and this was more common for women than for men.
The regret was, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying about what other people thought.” About being more true to oneself.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
Living a more authentic life, beautiful. Well, I think this is such an important message at this time where I think there’s increasing unhappiness, increasing depression in the world, disconnection. The answer in many ways, despite what’s happening in the world, despite the challenges we’re having, despite the increasing divisiveness in the world, is that focusing on just cultivating a few relationships.
It doesn’t have to be many, just a few good relationships, and investing time in those relationships is such an important part of wellbeing and of health and of longevity. It’s just often very neglected. I think this social fitness framework is such a beautiful concept that you’ve introduced in the world.
I really thank you for your work, and thank you for leading on the study that’s been going on for 80 years. May you live another 80 and continue this study at least.

Dr. Robert Waldinger:
No, probably not.

Dr. Mark Hyman:
I really love this conversation. Those of you listening encourage you to right now go out and get the book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness. Something I certainly think all of us want to lean into, which is how do we find happiness in our life?
If you’ve found ways to create happiness, share them, we’d love to hear from them. Leave a comment. Subscribe to wherever you got your podcast. We’ll see you next week on the Doctor’s Farmacy.

Closing:
Hi, everyone. I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. Just a reminder that this podcast is for educational purposes only. This podcast is not a substitute for professional care by a doctor or other qualified medical professional. This podcast is provided on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.
If you’re looking for help in your journey, seek out a qualified medical practitioner. If you’re looking for a functional medicine practitioner, you can visit ifm.org and search their find a practitioner database. It’s important that you have someone in your corner who’s trained, who’s a licensed healthcare practitioner, and can help you make changes, especially when it comes to your health.

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