The Five Pillars of Well-Being #3: RelationshipsJanuary 17 , 2013

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 and I want to highlight two of them.  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.  268 men were enrolled as sophomores and probed and prodded, interviewed, and followed through wars, marriages, careers, kids, grandkids and old age.  George Vaillant, who’s directed this study and has analyzed this data since the 60’s said,  “Our intimate attachments to other people — and them to us — matter and they matter more than anything else in the world.”  (BTW, the research and many fascinated stories from the participants can be found in the Atlantic magazine here:  What Makes Us Happy?)

Whether it’s intimate relationships, friends or colleagues at work, 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.  In this post, I’ll be sticking to those bits of advice that have a strong scientific basis.

Look for the good in others and express it to them.  John Gottman has been studying relationships for 40 years and can predict relationships that will be successful and those that will fail with over 90% accuracy.  Couples that stay together happily express five explicitly positive comments for every negative one.  In Marcial Losada’s decades of research on business teams, he’s found that the most successful teams have a ratio of at least three positive comments for every negative one in their meetings.  Make it a habit to share your appreciation of partners, friend s and colleagues and you’ll be well on your way to strengthening those relationships.  (Remember all the gratitude exercises I shared in the past?  You know, where you made a habit of thanking someone every day for something they did that you appreciated?  Those are the habits that start to make this method come more naturally.)

Proactively manage conflicts.  Conflict is part of relationships.   How that conflict is managed significantly influences whether a relationship will thrive.  Gottman found that relationships characterized by criticism, defensiveness or contempt and couples that constantly deferred conflict were on a path to dysfunction and separation.  Successful relationships were marked by partners who share their perspectives honestly, listen with curiosity, take responsibility for even their smallest contribution to the conflict and know how to quickly repair when they go off the handle.   Take a look at how you react and respond in conflicts.  When you find yourself going down the low road of attacking and criticizing, call yourself out.  Take a break from the conversation if you need to.  While effecting these patterns isn’t easy, even small changes in your response to conflict can result in significant positive change.

Spend time together and have fun.  Strong relationships require time together.  Schedule regular date nights, family activities and work gatherings where you talk about things besides work.   Have fun together.  It’s those trivial moments that provide profound opportunities for connection.

Celebrate.  Squeeze as much positivity out of good news as you can.  Research shows that responding with enthusiasm and interested questions when good news is shared fosters trust, intimacy and satisfaction with the relationship.  While negative or passive responses undercut those benefits and lead to negative relationship outcomes.

My experience

My greatest priorities revolve around relationships.  I work hard at connecting with others, infusing positivity and making space to work through conflicts.  Of course some of the ‘work’ is really fun, like celebrating with friends, chatting over coffee or dinner and having adventures together.  Feeling that I have a community that loves and supports me allows me take more risks and to be the person I want to be.  And when things are hard, I have the people to turn to who help me get through it.  And the more I seem to give to my social network, the more I receive.

Take home message

Some of these ideas will be very familiar, others may be new.  But take a minute to check in with this list.  Are there some things you’ve let fall off your priority list?  Are there relationships that could use a little effort right now?   You don’t have to take on all this at once, but just pick one to play with this week.  Schedule a date with your partner or a fun adventure with a friend.  Ask a coworker out to lunch to connect.   Consistent effort put into your relationships will pay off in the form of greater well-being.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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