Once Robert Waldinger’s TEDxBeaconStreet talk “The Good Life” went viral and his email account started to get flooded with messages, he made an unusual decision: he spent three weeks at a silent meditation retreat. Although the retreat had already been planned before the popularity of his talk, Waldinger said the timing couldn’t have been better.
“I was so grateful this happened because my first impulse was I have to answer all of these emails, and then I realized, ‘no, I don’t,’ I can just go sit on a cushion,” he says. “It was wonderful because it helped me sort of pay attention to what it meant to have this very unexpected thing happen in my life.”
Waldinger’s viral talk was on happiness — specifically the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a study that he says is “possibly the longest study of adult life ever done.” For 75 years, a group of researchers, including Waldinger, has tracked the lives (and happiness) of 724 men. The participants include a group who were raised in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods and a group of economically-privileged students at Harvard College. What they’ve found has been fascinating.
“The clearest message that we get from this 75 year study is this: that good relationships keep us healthier and happier, period,” he says. “Social connections are really good for us and that loneliness kills.”
That message resonated with viewers and as the talk went viral, Waldinger began to receive media requests for interviews and requests from strangers seeking advice about how they should try to achieve their own version of happiness.
“I got really wonderful and poignant emails from people talking about how they struggled in their relationships and how they had also been a source of unhappiness,” he says. “It reminded me there’s so many different life circumstances; even the message I was giving isn’t a one size fits all message. It’s just the summary of looking at hundreds of lives; but that doesn’t necessarily tell any one individual what he or she should do with their life.”
Waldinger says he now hopes to help create or bring to the public’s attention other studies about women, people of color and people of different socio-economic status. Through his own talk and study, Waldinger says he was also able to achieve greater insight into what works best for him in his own life, adding that relationships are “what light me up and energize me.”
“Even thinking about what to do after this talk – you get a lot of invitations to write books, to go and give a talk to a big audience – and what I’ve realized is those things might be fine but what’s really energizing is to have discussions with people,” he says. “I’m more interested in having back and forth with people; that’s one thing my message has reminded me of.”
For years, Waldinger has attended silent retreats, he says, but adds the three weeks he spent after his talk is the longest he has done to date and turned out to be a very profound experience.
“You get into a rhythm of living very simply, no electronic media (or very little), no screens, and I was just quietly sitting and walking,” he said. “To do that for three weeks and to live in a simple way was great and also hard; there were times I didn’t want to be with my own mind anymore.”
What he ultimately decides to do with the attention he has received is still up for debate but he’s grateful to have had the chance to have given his TEDx Talk.“It puts you on a much larger stage and the question is do I want to simply get on that stage, hide from that stage or is there something I want to do with it? And that’s what I began to think about and I’m still doing a lot of thinking about that.”