Marc Schulz
Big Brains podcst

The scientific secret to a happy life, with Marc Schulz (Ep. 107)

‘The Good Life’ co-author discusses the world’s longest study on happiness

Marc Schulz
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

What is the key to living a happy and fulfilling life? The answer is actually quite simple, according to the two scholars behind the longest scientific study of happiness every conducted.

Beginning in 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked three generations of families to uncover what contributed to their happiness. In their new book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz tell the stories behind their participants' lives and provide key insights on the recipe to happiness. 

Schulz, a professor at Bryn Mawr College, joins the podcast to discuss the book and their study.

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(Episode re-published Dec. 28, 2023. Episode originally published Feb. 2, 2023)

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To Find Happiness, Try Talking to Strangers—The New York Times

Workplace Friendships Are Worth the Awkwardness—The Washington Post

The Key To Happiness, According To A Decades-Long Study—NPR


Paul Rand: Big Brains is supported by the University of Chicago Graham School. We open the doors of UChicago to learners everywhere. Experience the university’s distinctive approach to inquiry through our online and in-person courses in the liberal arts, culture, science, society, and more. Learn with imminent instructors and extraordinary peers in small interactive classes. Spring course registration opens February 6th. Visit

Marc Schulz: About seven years ago, my colleague Bob Uldinger did a TED Talk.

Bob Uldinger: What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?

Marc Schulz: He prepared that Ted Talk and he gave me a kind of preview of it and asked for some feedback.

Bob Uldinger: If you weren’t going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?

Marc Schulz: I made the worst assessment I’ve made in mankind’s history. I said, “Bob, this is pretty good. I think it could work.” that TED Talk is now the ninth most watched TED Talk of all time. A lot of people watched it. Over 40 million people have watched it. It could work. It could work, right, exactly.

Paul Rand: What makes you happy?

Speaker 4: What makes me happy is a cup of hot coffee in the morning.

Paul Rand: A great meal.

Marc Schulz: What makes me happy is playing with my dog.

Paul Rand: A comedy film. These things might bring us momentary pleasure, but I think we’re all familiar with the sense that they never quite make us feel like we’ve had a pappy life. No matter what we do, it seems like that abstract feeling of a good life is just out of reach. We go on searching for answers and books and films and TED talks on YouTube or wherever.

Marc Schulz: Since I’ve been a teenager, maybe even younger, certainly in college, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of sort of how we can live a good life, what the secrets are to kind of flourishing.

Paul Rand: That’s Mark Schulz, professor and chair of psychology at Brynnmar College.

Marc Schulz: But I think this is a question that has been on people’s minds for a long time. If you look at ancient wisdom or religious traditions.

Paul Rand: The question of what makes for a happy life has mostly been the domain of literature and art. But in recent decades, science has started to take an interest in the question to see if we can develop a science of happiness.

Marc Schulz: I think we’re beginning to find answers that help people, that can help people in their daily life that’s research based.

Paul Rand: Of all the studies of human happiness, there’s one that’s been more in depth and going on longer than any other.

Marc Schulz: The Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Speaker 5: The longest scientific study of happiness that has ever been conducted. It began in 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It has followed people from their teenage years into their old, old age.

Bob Uldinger: Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed more than 1300 volunteers to determine what makes people flourish. It is the longest study ever done on human life.

Paul Rand: Schulz is the associate director of that study, which is directed by Bob Waldinger, who you will recall from the TED Talk we mentioned earlier. And after all this time, they’re finally ready to share the results in a new book called The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.

Marc Schulz: We struggled with a name of our book. It says, the Good Life and end of this subtitle has the word happiness, and happiness is part of the common lore today and it sells books, I think. when we talk about happiness and the good life, we want to emphasize to everyone that it’s very hard to experience happiness and joy without some of the challenges that come in life.

Paul Rand: It turns out that the key to unlocking what makes for a good, happy life is simpler and harder than you might think. Welcome to Big Brains, the podcast that believes it doesn’t need to take a two hour lecture to understand the research that’s reshaping our world. On our show, we translate the biggest ideas and complex discoveries into digestible brain food, big brains, little bites from the University of Chicago Podcast Network. I’m your host, Paul Rand. The findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development are fascinating, but the very existence of the study is a feat unto itself.

Marc Schulz: So it’s a very unique study. Started long before I was around. It started in the late thirties, and initially there were 724 participants, two very different groups. Almost two thirds of the original participants were adolescent boys that were growing up in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Most of them had come from immigrant families, lived in tenement buildings without running water. Very poor conditions and lots of challenges both in their current life and in their future. Then about the same time, literally sort of down the block across the city were students at Harvard University that formed the remaining one third of the study, and they obviously were perched in a very different place than the inner city boys. And it’s interesting because I think there is a pattern that my colleague has talked about, and I absolutely think he’s right, that the Harvard guys thought that it made sense to study us, that they were special, they were on top of the world, they were doing something important. They were both flattered and not surprised that people were interested in studying them.

We have some socioeconomic diversity that’s important, but both groups were followed forward across time. That’s the critical part is we followed and saw how their life played out, not what they imagined only, but how it actually played out and not retrospectively as a lot of studies need to do. Along the way. We also included their wives, and now we’re studying more than 1300 of their children. We call that the second generation.

Paul Rand: The original cohort of this was, as you mentioned, almost entirely men, and not just men, but white men and white men from Boston. You guys addressed this pretty much in the book saying, why is this relevant to you and how does that translate to a broader group?

Marc Schulz: Yeah, I mean, it’s such an important question and obviously if we could conduct studies that took 85 years easily, we would pick populations that would more broadly represent the world. We, Bob Balder and I, who direct the study now and who I co-wrote this book with, really feel strongly about talking about findings that generalize across gender, generalize across culture across countries. When we did the research for the book, we went to literature and tried to look more broadly, and the literature helps sustain this belief that there are some commonalities across the differences.

Paul Rand: Well, and you also cross reference with other studies, including some from here at the University of Chicago.

Marc Schulz: Exactly. Yeah.

Paul Rand: Well, in terms of talking about how the study actually works, because you’re actually doing it on a few different phases and different phases of time, aren’t you?

Marc Schulz: One of the things that marked this study from the very beginning was an interest in getting really up close and personal with its participants. Interviews were very important. Then more recently, as I think you’re intimating, one of the things about a study that’s lasted 85 years is that the technology and our knowledge and the science has grown enormously. They’ve all been through brain scans, we’ve taken blood samples, we’re doing genetic analysis, looking at other physiological markers of health. We bring them into the lab with their partners and we watch what happens when they interact with their partners and what kinds of emotions they display. We also ask them what kinds of emotions they felt. For our study, we really try to triangulate this across multiple methods, multiple reporters, and really kind of multiple aspects of what we mean by happiness.

Paul Rand: What do we learn from all of these lives? Does wealth, power status really lead us to happier lives? The central question can best be answered through the stories of two of the participants,

Marc Schulz: John Marson, a selling that we contrast with another character in the book named Leo DeMarco. And both John and Leo were students at Harvard. They went to school at the point where World War II was happening both font here to serve in World War II. John couldn’t because of health reasons. He actually served state side. John went on to have a very, very successful career in law, and that was what he always wanted to do.

Paul Rand: John Martson, which is a pseudonym by the way, had all the stuff we think of when we think of a good life.

Marc Schulz: He did a kind of impressive combination of academic law, some public service as well. He was well known for the work that he did.

Paul Rand: Leo DeMarco, not so much.

Marc Schulz: This person that we contrasted him with, was someone who wanted to be a writer. Leo was really interested in writing. He served in the war abroad and he kept notes for a diary that he thought he might turn into book. He came home and his mom got sick and he had to return to the family home in Vermont to help out his family. He never became a writer. He became a high school teacher instead.

Paul Rand: John Martson was one of the most successful participants in this study, but one of the least happy. The question was why.

Marc Schulz: He struggled in his closest relationships, particularly with his family in a marriage and in a subsequent relationship. Those were always hard for him. He felt a sense of disconnection and lack of support and his life. He achieved at the highest levels and also struggled in terms of his happiness and his sense of really living the good life. And he would talk about that when we interviewed him.

Paul Rand: Whereas Leo?

Marc Schulz: He flourished in his relationship. So he had connections with his family. His daughters were very close to him. He fell in love with a woman that he kept a relationship with for his entire life. His life was enriched because of the connections that he had both at home but also at school. He became a beloved high school teacher, really important part of that community.

Paul Rand: After cross-referencing the life stories of all the participants, all the data, the answer to what makes us happy, what makes a good life was stunningly clear. Whether you have prominent status and wealth or a difficult and less lucrative life, your happiness really only depends on one thing. It all does boil down to one word. I wonder if we can talk about that word and what it actually means.

Marc Schulz: I think you’re talking about relationships I hope.

Paul Rand: It is. The magic word.

Marc Schulz: When we step back and it’s hard to step back among hundreds of findings and to look at what’s the commonality across those studies. When we did that, it was a great exercise. What we found is that relationships are not just important for our happiness, they’re also important for our physical wellbeing. That work is bolstered by lots of research. One of the sort of go-to pieces these days is all the research that’s happening around loneliness, which is really about the absence of a sense of connection. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of studies now that show very clearly that loneliness has a risk for your physical health that’s akin to smoking cigarettes or to obesity.

Speaker 6: Researchers found loneliness is a major threat to Americans’ mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing, and it can have huge consequences.

Marc Schulz: Sadly, like obesity, it’s quite popular that 20% to 40% of our population of adults in our population report being lonely. This is a major public health issue.

Speaker 7: Loneliness is at epidemic levels nationwide. Nearly half of Americans report feeling alone sometimes or always.

Marc Schulz: We’re learning more and more. In the book we talk about some research that was done by Jim Cohen, who’s at the University of Virginia, in which he exposed people to a kind of mild source of pain, and he did it under two conditions. He did it when they were alone and when they were able to hold the hand of others, and particularly to hold the hand of a loved one. What he found is that the pain centers, the places where we know that we experience pain, that perceived pain for us are affected by the presence of someone holding our hand, particularly someone who’s a loved one.

Paul Rand: The effect was so profound that Cone concluded it was as powerful as a mild aesthetic.

Marc Schulz: This idea that relationships get under our skin and into our body, we’re beginning to unpack and understand more and more. If we look at people that are lonely, they have an epigenetic profile. The way their genes are expressed or not expressed, that’s different from other people. Promotes inflammation, which is bad over time for our physical health and our mental health. It also affects our ability to respond to invaders bacteria, and viruses in the body. It shuts down our antiviral and our antibacterial responses as well. So more and more research, Matt is coming out that allows us to think about the bodily pathways in the brain and throughout our body that are influenced both by our moods, our happiness, and particularly by our connections to others.

Paul Rand: And when we are talking about relationships, there’s all sorts of kinds of relationships, whether it’s romantic or friendships or work relationships, is it all kinds of relationships that matter and they each have a place?

Marc Schulz: It is. I like to start by, it’s the first question I get. Do I need to be in a long-term intimate relationship to reap these benefits? And the answer is no. It could be friends, it could be siblings or cousins or people at work.

Paul Rand: Even quick passing relationships with a barista or the mail person. What Schulzs calls, weak Thai relationships can make a big difference.

Marc Schulz: You asked about a Chicago connection. One of our favorite pieces of research that we talk a lot about in our book is Work by Nicholas Epley, right?

Paul Rand: Right. Right. We’ve actually done a feature on him as well.

Speaker 8: I would say my lab has been consumed with this really reliable result that people underestimate how positive others will feel when you reach out to them in a pro-social positive way. We just find that effect relentlessly.

Marc Schulz: The work that Nicholas Epley is doing, which is careful experimental research, looking at what happens when we randomly assign people to talk to a stranger versus do the usual thing on a train, which is to zone out and not look at anyone that people who get randomly assigned and talk to a stranger report feeling happier.

Speaker 8: If you look out in the world, you see lots of opportunities where people could be connecting with others, engaging with the mind of another, and they’re not every day on the trains. People come into Chicago or all over the world, and people sit cheek to jowl and they don’t talk to each other. Riding buses downtown, walking along city sidewalks. The cities are crammed with people desperately It seems often trying to ignore each other.

Marc Schulz: This idea that we often get kind of emotional boost and even a kind of reminder of our basic humanity from these connections with people that we know little about. A lot of us have that experience where we have these incredible conversations. As I’ve talked more and more about this research, I’ve been collecting these stories and the stories often have a similar arc. People talk about talking to strangers and that it was so meaningful to them that at the end of the day when they’re talking to their partner, they recall that experience of having this connection to someone that they had never talked to before. That’s pretty magical

Paul Rand: With our health and our happiness on the line. You might be getting nervous. What if I’m a shy person or what if I have trauma around relationships in my life? Well, we’ll address those two questions and others after the break. Big Brains is supported by the University of Chicago Graham School. We open the doors of U Chicago to learners everywhere, experience the university’s distinctive approach to inquiry through our online and in-person courses in the liberal arts culture, science society, and more learn with imminent instructors and extraordinary peers in small interactive classes. Spring course registration opens February 6th. Visit Let’s apply the science to be very hands on at this point, because I think ultimately out of this, and you mentioned something and build out something that you talked about is social fitness.

Marc Schulz: Social fitness is an idea. It’s really a metaphor here that we need to think about our connections to others, our relationships to others in ways that are similar to how we take care of our physical fitness. This idea about social fitness is really about taking stock of your relationships, kind of assessing where you’re at, which ones are working, which ones you want to enliven, and moving forward with intention, trying hard to think about the things that you want to work on. Prioritizing relationships is a critical part. We think about people a lot in our lives. I have a friend who’s sick who just got diagnosed with cancer. I’m thinking about her a lot at this particular time. I did happen to reach out to her and let her know I’m thinking about her and want to be helpful in whatever way I can. A lot of times we don’t do it. We don’t take that action. It could be simple, it could be a basic text. I’m really busy, but I want you to know I’m thinking about you. That’s heartwarming.

Paul Rand: Of course, sometimes reaching out can be difficult, and maybe it involves addressing uncomfortable issues, but that data from the Harvard study shows we need to overcome these fears. Participants in this study who avoided or ignored difficulties had worse memory and reported being less happy later in life.

Marc Schulz: Yeah, one of the great things about writing a book that’s got some attention is old friends are reaching out like connections that people I haven’t had. It’s a really nice thing. And those emails often say, let’s find a time to catch up. Let’s zoom or let’s call. And what I’ve learned is instead of responding, yes, let’s do it. I say, how about next Saturday at two o’clock? Are you available? Right? The simple things we can do are really commit ourselves to a time and a place. Another thing that’s important is we did touch on this idea about curiosity. That in the strangers on the train research that Nicholas Epley does, in our own lives, we all have these moments where we’re just not sure we can say the right thing. My friend who’s sick, there are lots of things that I could say to make her feel worse probably but probably what’s most important is that I’m reaching out and telling her that I care about her.

Paul Rand: Another way to talk about relationships is to talk about paying attention to the people in our lives and in our modern world, attention has become the hottest commodity. As Schulz writes in the book, time and attention are not something we can replenish. They are what our life is. When we offer our time and attention, we are not merely spending and paying. We are giving our lives.

Marc Schulz: If we think about our relationships to others and the people that we really care about, particularly the people that we don’t live in the same house with and how much time we spend with them, it’s really a precious amount of time. I wrote this book with a long-term colleague and a person who’s become a close friend. We’ve known each other for 30 years. In a good year. We spend two days together in person. He’s in Boston, I’m outside Philadelphia at Brynnmar. If we kind of guesstimate, Bob is in his 70s. I’m 60. We have maybe in a good, good day, 30 years left of this friendship, 30 times two 60 more days together. That helps us think about how precious our time is and all of our waking moments that we don’t attend to those relationships, that we don’t use our attention and our presence as time lost with people that we can care about. Okay.

Paul Rand: Yeah. You talked about mindfulness, which is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days. It’s on every mug and greeting card, you see. How do you mean mindfulness?

Marc Schulz: Lots of discussion about mindfulness in the public and certainly in research. There are really two ways that people think about mindfulness. One is the practice of it, and I’m not really talking about that. The formal practice of sitting and meditating, counting your breaths, I’m talking about the ability to bring your attention to what you’re experiencing in the moment. We know from a study that Dan Gilbert and Killingsworth, one of his students did that a kind of distracted mind as a less happy mind that they surveyed thousands of people random times during the day, asked them what they were thinking about what they were doing, and people who were thinking about what they were doing were focused on what they were doing, reported greater happiness.

Paul Rand: They found people spend almost half of their waking moments thinking about something other than what they’re doing. That’s half your life lost in thought.

Marc Schulz: When I’m talking about mindfulness, I’m talking about the ability to be present and to give one’s attention to a conversation that they’re having or a relationship partner. It also means a certain kind of curiosity too. It’s not just presence, but I’m curious, right? Learning to be brave and asking questions about what do you think? What’s it like to be a podcaster and what’s the best part of it, right? Those are the kinds of questions. They’re great.

Paul Rand: I can hear you saying, I don’t have the time or the energy to go to my social fitness gym. I’m working harder than ever before. My job is more demanding than ever, and I’m exhausted.

Marc Schulz: This idea that it’s more stressful now than any other time. I’m not sure. When I read through these records, these men are growing up in very different times that I grew up in. I teach in a women’s college. I teach at Bryer College. My students say, I’m really interested in research, but I don’t know about these white guys that grew up in the teens, in the twenties. What does their life have to do with me? And I say, why don’t you just read one of these case studies that I prepared that you can take a look at? Almost to a person, they come back and they say it’s incredible. They had the same worries about what was going to happen to them. They had the same hopes about finding something meaningful.

Paul Rand: You may be shocked to hear, but the average number of work hours have actually declined significantly across the globe. Americans on average are working 10% less than they did in 1950. What gives? Why are we so tired all the time?

Marc Schulz: There are technologies and social forces that work that have made it harder for us to connect in truly meaningful ways, and I think that’s really important. Again, a study like this, telephones, TVs, newspapers and homes, all communications have changed. Intrusions into the house have happened in the past. The level of intrusion with technology is different because we’re carrying it around in our pockets all the time. We’re distracted so much.

Paul Rand: You may think that quick email checks is harmless, that quick sign it on Twitter doesn’t have an effect on you. Multiple studies have now shown that when your brain switches between tasks, it consumes energy.

Marc Schulz: Our phones are beeping and telling us there’s something important happening at work, or we’re missing something important in the news that we have trouble giving people our attention

Paul Rand: No matter how small and fast those distractions come at a cost.

Marc Schulz: So the loneliness data is not that surprising to me in that context. And

Paul Rand: All those micro switches from work to Twitter to email, to work to your kids back to Twitter, they add up. Even though we’re working less than people in the past, were more stressed than ever

Marc Schulz: Estimates that we spend. The average person in the US spends over 10 hours a day on screens at work and by distracting themselves with other things. Can you imagine if we could pull ourselves away part of that time and devote that to the relationships that matter most to us?

Paul Rand: Of course, there are other things that keep some people from developing relationships, whether it’s shyness or trauma around getting close to others developed from past relationships.

Marc Schulz: I think one thing that’s really important is this idea about how much my fate is sort of determined or locked. My family has a history of mental illness. I’m doomed. I must have bad genes. I had a really difficult childhood. I’m never going to be happy. I’m never going to have connections with others. These are really important and meaningful questions to people. And our own work shows that if you grew up in a home, so these kids that grew up in the thirties, if they came from a home in which their parents were present, kind, nurturing, warm, consistent, they have a better life. That life isn’t that much better than other people, but there’s an advantage to having those kinds of conditions growing up. It’s not fate. There are plenty of people that grew up without them that turn the corner often because of connections they have with other people outside their family and often because they meet someone that’s important in their life that allows them in some ways to almost have a corrective experience and to grow relationship skills and trust in a way that expands their life.

One very important message in the study and in the book, and we illustrate in the book with stories with a number of people that it’s really never too late. They changed their lives around people in their sixties and seventies turn their lives around in really important ways. There’s a gentleman in the book that we profile who lived one of the most isolated lives in of all our participants. He lived in the West and Montana. He had some challenges growing up. He was also in a marriage that wasn’t fulfilling. We asked him if he had friends. He would report simply on his questionnaire, either as zero or no. The only thing in life that really gave him a sense of happiness and joy was his work, which he had to stop in his late sixties because of some physical challenges that he had. He did very meticulous work with clocks and watches, and he couldn’t do that work as he aged.

One of the things he did was he joined a gym and he started going to the gym regularly. He figured out, it was fascinating to listen to him tell a story. He figured out that the same people were there when he went every morning at the gym. Even though they weren’t much like him, many of the people at the gym were younger than him. He appreciated at first just seeing familiar faces because he was so isolated. I should also add, he also separated from his wife at that time as well. Over time, he started to share with those people at the gym some of his interests. One of those was an interest in old movies. The young people at the gym thought this was cool and interesting, and he would invite them over to screen movies at his home. He developed friendships. In his seventies when we had the next interview with him, we asked him again about his friendships, and he said, yes, several.

This is a man that was so isolated that he had thought of ending his life. This was an extreme sense of misery and isolation and lack of support. He changed things in his late sixties and seventies. So that’s a kind of inspiring story that to me, at any point in your life, no matter the challenges that you experience, there’s always the possibility of changing.

Paul Rand: The science is in. The good life, a happy life really is out there waiting for each of us if we’re just brave enough to pick up the phone and give a call to someone we love. Turn off this podcast. Go out there and take care of your relationships. Thanks for Listening.

Speaker 10: Alexa, what makes you happy?

Speaker 11: Talking to friends, you included.

Speaker 12: I am happiest when my family’s at the house and I’m cooking food for everybody on the grill.

Speaker 13: Human connection makes me happy. Whether it’s with people I know and love, or strangers.

Matt Hodapp: Big brains is the production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please leave us a rating and review. The show is hosted by Paul M Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp and Leah Ceasrine. Thanks for listening.


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