The One Thing Midlife Men Must Do to Have a Great Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness

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My interest in the lives of midlife men began in 1949, the year I was five years old and my 43-year-old father took an overdose of sleeping pills. My dad had become increasingly depressed when he couldn’t support his family doing the work he loved. Though he didn’t die, our lives were never the same. I grew up wondering what happened to my father, when it would happen to me, and what I could do to help other families avoid the suffering my family experienced.

            Two other men have been interested in the lives of men for a long time. Robert Waldinger, MD is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Marc Schulz, PhD is the associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. They have been friends and colleagues for more than thirty years and have recently written a groundbreaking book on how we can all create a more joyful and meaningful life.

            In The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, they say,

“The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in 1938, with the intention of ‘investigating not what made people sick but what made them thrive.’ The original 724 subjects were young men and boys from the Boston area chosen from two populations: 268 were Harvard undergraduates and 456 were from Boston’s inner-city and disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

            Subjects agreed to answer a thorough set of survey and interview questions every two years. Collected over hundreds of lifetimes, the biennial check-ins constructed detailed portraits of participants’ health using emotional wellbeing surveys, medical tests, and biographical interviews.

            We all want to be happy and live a great life, but what does that actually mean? Drs. Waldinger and Schultz begin to answer that question by drawing on the wisdom of the past.

“More than two thousand years ago Aristotle used a term that is still in wide use in psychology today eudaimonia. It refers to a stage of deep well-being in which a person feels their life has meaning and purpose.It is often contrasted with hedonia (the origin of the word hedonism), which refers to the fleeting happiness of various pleasures.”

            They go on to say,

“If hedonic happiness is what you mean when you say you’re having a good time, then eudaimonic happiness is what we mean when we say life is good. It is the kind of well-being that can endure through both the ups and the downs.”

            When my father couldn’t find work, he blamed himself, thought he was a failure as a man and that my mother and me would be better off without him. I wrote about his recovery and his journey to find real happiness in my memoir, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound, and offer an on-line course on how we can all heal the father wound.

            Waldinger and Schultz begin their book with a simple question:

“If you had to make one life choice, right now, to set yourself on the path to future health and happiness, what would it be?”

Think about that for a moment. If the genie of happiness gave you one wish, what would you choose?

            The authors suggest ones that studies have shown people have chosen.

“Would you choose to put more money into savings each month? To change careers? Would you decide to travel more?”

In a 2007 survey, millennials were asked about their most important goals.

“Seventy-six percent said that becoming rich was their number one goal and fifty percent said a major goal was to become famous.”

            What does the science actually tell us? I encourage you to read the book. It is full of stories and the facts are clear. Here’s the short answer with the three major things learned over that past 86 years of the study:

  • First, having social connections is better for our health and wellbeing—and conversely, loneliness kills.
  • Second, having higher-quality close connections is more important for our well-being than the number of connections.
  • Third, having good relationships is not only good for our bodies but also for our brains.

“Once we had followed the people in the Harvard Study all the way into their 80s,”

say Drs. Waldinger and Schultz,

“we wanted to look back at them at midlife to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. So we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50 and found that it wasn’t their middle-aged cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old; it was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest (mentally and physically) at age 80.”

This is crucially important. Throughout human history most people died by age 50. Now many of us will live a full-second adulthood into our 80s, 90s, and beyond. The decisions we make at midlife will determine whether our future is one of joy and wellbeing or despair and decrepitude. (The dictionary offers this example to describe the word: “He had passed directly from middle age into decrepitude.”) You definitely don’t want this to be you.

            You can hear Dr. Waldinger give the summary of the Harvard Study in a 13-minute TED talk that has amassed twenty-five million views.

Why Joining a Men’s Group is the One Thing Midlife Men Must Do to Have a Great Life

            I turned 80 years old last December and feel very fortunate to have focused on relationships throughout my life. My wife, Carlin, and I have been happily married for 44 years. Carlin will tell you that one of the main reasons she feels we have had a successful 44-year marriage is because I’ve been in a men’s group for 45 years.

            For more than fifty years, I have been a psychotherapist specializing in helping midlife men and their families live fully healthy lives. I have found that midlife is a time when men’s health can improve dramatically or they begin to decline. It can be the most passionate, powerful, productive, and purposeful time of a man’s life. Or it be a time when men begin to go downhill.

            Even when men recognize the critical importance of fostering good relationships with a spouse, family, friends, and acquaintances, most would not think that joining a men’s group was the most important thing a man could do. Yet, I believe it is.

            I was 36 years old when I first joined the men’s group. I believe my group involvement has been the most important thing contributing to my health and happiness. My most recent book, Long Live Men! The Moonshot Mission to Heal Men, Close the Lifespan Gap, and Offer Hope to Humanity detailed I’ve learned about life, love, intimacy, and the importance of men coming together in groups at midlife.  

            My friend and colleague, Chip Conley, is the Co-Founder and CEO of the Modern Elder Academy. In his book, Learning to Love Midlife: 12 Reasons Why Life Gets Better with Age, he says that midlife may last from age 35 to 75 and details three stages:

  • 35 to 50. We tend to experience some of the challenging physical and emotional transitions—a bit like an adult puberty.
  • 50 to 60 is the core of midlife when we’ve settled into this new era and are seeing some of the upside.
  • 60 to 75 is when we’re young enough to still be working and living a very vital life, but old enough to see and plan for what’s next: our senior years.

I was lucky to join the men’s group during this first midlife stage and to still be in the group when I graduated to the stage of Elderhood.

In my book, 12 Rules for Good Men, I say,

“Rule #1 is Join a Men’s Group. Looking back on our heritage as men and our lives as hunter-gatherers over the last two million years, one of the things that stands out to me is that men spend considerable time in small groups with other men. This occurred naturally as men went away from the camp hunting for game to feed their families and tribe.”

            In more recent times, men have experienced this deep connection by going off to war. As Waldinger and Schultz say in their study,

“All of the college men in the Harvard Study had plans as the 1940s began. Then Pearl Harbor happened, and every plan, for every student, went out the window—89 percent of the college men fought in the war, and their lives were deeply affected by it. Yet nearly all of the college men reported feeling proud to have served, and many remember it as one of the best and most meaningful times in their lives despite it challenges.”

            Sebastian Junger is the bestselling author of numerous books including The Perfect Storm, Tribe, and War. He says,

“Americans are enamored with war, even when they say they don’t believe in it. Young men in the west no longer have a sense of what it means to be a man—and some of them go to war to find out. We all want peace, but we’re all fascinated by the drama of war. It transcends our moral beliefs.”

            I believe that to have healthy relationships with spouses, friends, and family, we need to take risks and be tested. We need to find our place in the company of men we can trust with our lives. We need to open ourselves to our deepest fears and know we are fully accepted for who we are. We don’t have to go to war to do that.

            I found what I needed in a men’s group and share my experience in a recent article, “ ‘Til Death Do We Part: The Life and Times of My 45-Year-Old Men’s Group.” I have participated in a number of powerful men’s group experiences over the years. Here are a few resources I recommend:

If you’d like to read more articles like these, please visit me at MenAlive.com and subscribe to our free newsletter.

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