Happiness and Relationships: Positive Ties That BindMarch 6 , 2014

We are social creatures.  Our brains are wired for connection.  Our ability to live in harmony with each other is what has allowed human beings to thrive on this planet.  And much has been studied on why our relationships are essential to our well-being.

The power of our connections

There are dozens of studies showing the benefits of strong relationships to our happiness.  Two particularly powerful ones:

  • Martin Seligman and Ed Diener completed a study of the happiest 10% of the population.  They found only one characteristic that was common to every member of that group: “their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.”   While having strong relationships was not sufficient in itself to be in that upper echelon (there were unhappy people who had strong relationships too), there were no loners in that top group.  Strong ties are ESSENTIAL to a life well-lived.
  • One of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever undertaken was started in the 1930’s at Harvard.  The goals of the study was ‘to identify the key ingredients that lead to a rewarding life.’  268 men were enrolled as sophomores and probed and prodded, interviewed, and followed through wars, marriages, careers, kids, grandkids and old age.  By evaluating their health and longevity, happiness and life satisfaction and career and financial success, George Vaillant, who directed this study since the 60’s said, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”  And that “Our intimate attachments to other people— and them to us— matter and they matter more than anything else in the world.”

Whether it’s our romantic relationships, colleagues at work or good friends, other people matter.  Period.

Scientifically-proven methods to improve your relationships

We all know how complicated people and relationships can be.  And there is no end to the amount of advice you can find in magazines, books and television.  Fortunately, all kinds of relationships have been studied in-depth in scientifically valid ways.  Over the next few months, I’m going to be sharing the best of what science has to say about how to build more healthy relationships in our lives and to help our current relationships grow stronger.

This week, I’m going to start with the simplest and most powerful of these tools:

Gratitude for Others

This simple exercise can rewire your brain to look for all the good that others provide for you.   It’s an adaptation of the gratitude exercise that I teach at every talk I give, with a focus on your relationships and the people you see most in your life.

How to Do It

For the next two weeks, sit down at a set time each day and spend a few minutes writing down three things that other people have done for you that you are grateful for.  Be specific and explain why you are grateful for it.   Some recent examples from my life:

“I am grateful that my wife encouraged me to go out with my friends on Saturday night since she wanted to stay in.  It showed how much my happiness is important to her and that she fully trusts me to be out with my friends.”

“I love how my business partner started our conversation yesterday with a question about my weekend.  I know he’s crazy busy building up the company and the fact that he took the time to inquire about my life helps me feel like an integrated part of the team.”

“I so appreciate that my father sold me his old Prius (at a great price) when he stepped up to a new model.   He watches out for me even decades after I’ve become an independent and successful adult. “

“I love how my son gave me the biggest hug when he got home from school yesterday.  His energy really brought up my mood after a cranky and unproductive afternoon. “

Like in these examples, there is no need to look for huge life-changing experiences of gratitude.  In fact it’s in noticing the little things that you can find the greatest benefit.   Don’t overthink it; just write down those things that come to mind first.  There is no wrong way to do this exercise.  And as you do it, try to open up to those feelings of gratitude.  Let them spread from your mind to your whole body.  Wallow in those awesome feelings when they come.  Savor them.

How It Helps

Thousands of years of evolution have trained our brains to look for what’s wrong in life, what’s scary or isn’t working and then to try to make it better.  It’s called negativity bias.  When you let this bias drive, it’s hard to notice anything but faults and problems in your relationships.  If you go down this path too often, you create very well-worn neuro-pathways in your brain and this ‘finding fault’ perspective can become your default.  And — obviously — if you constantly share what’s wrong and how you want others to change for you, it can cause no end of friction in your relationships.

However, every time you turn your mind towards things and people that you are grateful for, it activates a different set of neuro-pathways that look for what’s good and working in your relationships.  Neuroscientists say that neurons that fire together, wire together.  So each time you look for things to be grateful for in other people, you begin to grow more synapses between those neurons.  Over time you start to grow more neurons along those pathways which make it easier and easier for your brain to look for and find these benefits.

One more reason it works: as much as we all like to believe in multi-tasking, your brain is really a single processor.  So every time you choose to look for something good from the people around you, it means you can’t also be lamenting what is missing or what is gone.   This helps create a more optimistic outlook in all parts of your life not just in your relationships.

This week’s challenge:  Kick off this gratitude-for-others practice today.  Spend a few minutes for these next two weeks writing down specific things other people do that you appreciate.   Slow down and pay attention to how you are feeling during these sessions and try to open up to the positive feelings in those thoughts rather than just checking the exercise off your to-do list.  If you do this practice regularly, you should start to notice that it gets easier and easier over time and you will start to see improvements in your key relationships.

Eric Karpinski,  The Happiness Coach

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