In a world full of noise and connection, Robert Waldinger is drawn to solitude. 

It’s not that he doesn’t like people – quite the opposite. People are his passion and his life’s work, and seeking solitude pays off when it comes to the quality of his relationships.

Waldinger is an expert at studying people, specifically relationships and human interaction. The Harvard-based psychiatrist and psychoanalyst has devoted his life to learning what makes people tick and inspires them to thrive.  

On a recent episode of On Purpose With Jay Shetty, Waldinger explained how much more challenging it is to connect and thrive in deep and meaningful ways in today’s society and how quietness is key.  

Groundbreaking 75-Year-Old Study

For some, studying the same 724 men for 75 years might be boring, but for Robert Waldinger and his team, it has been a dream come true. He currently serves as the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a groundbreaking 75-year-old study that follows 724 men as they navigate life. 

The ongoing venture started out as two separate studies. The first study observed 268 young men as they entered their sophomore year at Harvard. Participants included President John F. Kennedy and longtime editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee. The second study observed 456 young men from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Eventually, the studies were merged into one.

Waldinger was the fourth director of the study since its inception. Due to his background in couples’ therapy, he wasn’t sure how to start. They decided to start with what he knew – relationships.

The Bedrock Of Affection

When it comes to relationships, Robert Waldinger said sometimes the results observed in the study were surprising. One thing that surprised him most was that conflict wasn’t necessarily an indicator of an unhealthy relationship.

“When we videotaped couples having a disagreement, the thing that clearly predicted who was going to stay together five years down the road was how much affection they showed for each other,” Waldinger told Jay Shetty. “They could be arguing and really mad at each other, but as long as you saw that bedrock of affection, those were stable couples.”

He acknowledges that this is a learned skill and not every couple possesses it. He firmly believes, however, that those who can learn to argue well, support each other, and age together are the healthiest and happiest.  

Disagreement is a part of life, and every relationship has rocky times.  Both Waldinger and Jay Shetty stress the importance of communication, learning to argue well, and never forgetting to return to the bedrock of affection.  

“We try to avoid conflict,” said Jay Shetty. “But I think conflict resolution or having tough conversations is such an important skill that we never get exposed to.”

Waldinger believes that early on in relationships, understanding how to handle conflict well needs to be a main focus. Couples do well to remember not to fight their partner but to fight the problem WITH their partner.  

“Realize that you're both trying to solve a problem,” said Waldinger. “Don’t argue with each other to see who wins and who loses, but instead ask, how do we manage this problem together?” said Waldinger. “Once you make the problem the enemy, if you will, you're in much better shape.” 

“I have learned in my relationship with my wife that it's a lot more fun to win together,” Jay Shetty agreed. “In a relationship, if you win and your partner loses, you both lose.”

Waldinger shared some key strategies with Jay Shetty for handling conflict in a way that builds and strengthens the relationship:  

  1. Commit to fight the problem, not each other. This makes it possible to tackle the problem together and win.
  2. Use “I”, not “you” in disagreements. Own your feelings and understanding of the situation while giving the other person time and space to defend theirs.
  3. Avoid “you always” and “you never”. These are sweeping statements that are not true.
  4. Practice in the calm. Don’t wait until arguments flare up to set boundaries or guidelines for using conflict resolution strategies.  

“When your relationship is feeling strong, use that time to discuss how you'd like to deal with disagreements because that's the time when you're steady,” agreed Jay Shetty.

Grow Old With Me

As time went by, Robert Waldinger began to notice a common thread. It showed up in his own decades-long marriage and in the lives and interactions of the men who were part of his study. 

“Relationships are going to change, and that's okay,” explained Waldinger. “Each person is going to grow and develop, and that's not a problem. It means that the relationship is a living, vibrant thing.” 

So, what does a living, vibrant relationship look like? Waldinger observed throughout the years that while the biggest concerns of newer relationships focused on conflict resolution and navigating communication, partners in more mature relationships were mainly concerned about the other person’s needs.  

Healthy, mature relationships still experienced conflict, but for them it looked different. Couples interviewed shared that they worried about what would happen to their spouse after they died, how they would take care of money or kids, and what it would be like to live alone or in a nursing home. In these healthy partnerships, the bedrock of affection had stood the test of time and it drew people to each other in their struggles.  

Human Connection with Jay Shetty

The facts don’t lie. Human connection is vital for health. 

“People who see more people tend to live longer and healthier, compared with people who are more socially isolated,” said Waldinger. He was surprised to discover that people who had warm, closer relationships and were more socially connected to others aged better, stayed healthier as they got older, and lived longer.

While it may be easy to just pass connection off as bumping into someone in the grocery store, Waldinger and Jay Shetty agreed that true connection goes deeper – having someone to count on and care for. Knowing someone is only a phone call away in a crisis can set a person at ease. 

“I think today the challenge is we're surrounded by people, but we still feel lonely,” said Jay Shetty. “We're constantly having a small talk but not deep talk. We're constantly completely filled up with friends and followers but no one to call in a time of need.” 

In Quietness There Is Strength

Although Robert Waldinger has devoted his life to studying people, communication, and human interaction, his most profound moments of growth have come in times of silence and solitude.  

Thirteen years ago, the noise of life motivated Waldinger to seek something more. At the urging of a friend, he started attending Zen meditation class, and his pursuit of peace and connection blossomed. What he has learned while meditating and while on silent retreats has shaped the way he approaches life, his work, and the universe.   

Now more than ever, he acknowledges that human interaction is vital and that all living beings are intrinsically connected to each other and to the universe.  He explained this core pillar of Zen to Jay Shetty this way, “If I win and you lose, I lose. If we don't all rise together, nothing can work.” 

As Waldinger observes nature, he sees this connectedness even more. 

“The only way to align with nature, to be one with nature, and to be nature, is to serve,” said Waldinger. “And actually, all of our problems come from not serving because we're unaligned from nature.”  

For Waldinger, serving others and finding his place has created ripples of health and wholeness. Jay Shetty described this as the theater of happiness. 

“There are infinite ways that people are gifted and called,” said Jay Shetty. “What makes one person unique or what they have to offer to the universe is different than the person next to them.” When people focus on their own seat in the theater of happiness, they are bringing their best and making the universe a better place.

Listen to the entire episode of On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode on How To Nourish Your Meaningful Relationships now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out his website at jayshetty.me.