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Lions Roar : July 2017
on to become delinquents, while others did not. They selected a group of 456 twelve-to-sixteen-year-old boys from Boston’s poorest and most troubled families. When the studies were combined, all of the subjects were interviewed and given medical exams. The researchers went to the subjects’ homes and interviewed their parents. And then life took its course. The men went out into the world and became factory workers and lawyers, bricklayers and doctors. “Some developed alco- holism,” Waldinger said in his TED talk, “a few developed schizo- phrenia. Some climbed the social ladder from the bottom all the way to the very top and some made that journey in the opposite direction.” One of the Harvard cohort, John F. Kennedy, became president of the United States. Over the years, some of the former tenement boys would ask, “Why do you keep wanting to talk to me? My life just isn’t that interesting.” But, Waldinger likes to quip, none of the Harvard grads ever asked that question. Today, about sixty of the original 724 men are still alive and participating in the study. Most are in their nineties, and every two years the research staff calls them up and asks if they can send them one more set of questions about their lives. Undoubtedly, the demograph- ics of the study are problematic, since all of the original subjects were white men. About a decade ago, when the researchers first attempted to address the gender issue by inviting the men’s wives to take part, many of the women chided them. “It’s about time,” they said. Now, in addition to the wives, the researchers are study- ing the men’s more than two thousand grown children, and half of them are female. “Thank God!” says Waldinger. Rectifying the lack of racial diversity is more complicated, since the focus of the second genera- tion study is understanding how the quality of a person’s childhood affects his or her emotional and physical wellbeing in midlife. “What we have that’s so rare is information about the subjects’ childhoods from their parents,” says Waldinger. “I could collect a new, much more diverse sample of baby boomers and ask them what their childhoods were like and then measure their health now. That would be easy to do. But what we know about memory is that it’s totally KEYS TO A HAPPY LIFE • There are two pillars of happiness—love, and coping without pushing love away • The ability to “play” leads to late-life happiness • Because negative effects of childhood diminish, midlife lifestyle choices better indicate lifespan • Life’s challenges can be transformed into happiness by approaching them as learning experiences creative and faulty. When we remember our childhood, we leave out a lot and we make up a lot. Not because we’re trying to, but because that’s the way memory works.” Waldinger admits the study is imperfect and skewed, and that under other circumstances it would be shut down. But because of its detailed eyewitness reports, it is uniquely valuable. AFTER SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS of studying people’s lives, the clearest takeaway is this: over the long haul, strong relationships are what keep us healthy and happy. In the early years of the study, this finding came as a surprise LION’S ROAR | JULY 2017 37