In the late 1930s, researchers at Harvard University conceived of a project to understand happiness and personal success. In one of the longest running studies of all time, they began following the lives of 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 1930s up to the present day (most of them having passed-on by now), in order to understand what distinguishes the happiest from the least happy men. In 2009, George Vaillant, who has directed the study for the last 40 years, wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly summarizing the conclusion of the study in one word: “love.” He went on to say that our relationships with other people matter more to our happiness than anything else in the world.
Many other studies have supported this conclusion. What sets apart the happiest people in the world is not wealth, beauty, talent, fame, achievement, IQ, fitness or any of a myriad of variables you can name. Only one factor is predictive of happiness–the strength of our personal relationships. Happy people have strong, positive, and loving relationships. Positive social interactions literally produce chemical endorphins in the brain that reduce anxiety, depression and increase our well-being, make us feel happy and good about ourselves and life.
How often do we erroneously assume that mastering these other outcomes will automatically lead to happiness? It reminds me of the story of an army slashing their way through a heavy jungle. Eventually, someone climbs to the top of a tall tree, looks around, and hollers back to the rest of the men. “We’re in the wrong jungle.” Someone on the ground shouts to him, “Shut up! We’re making great progress.”
I don’t want to suggest that happiness is the only outcome in life that matters. However, I do want to say that most of us want to be happy and understanding the correlation between happiness and positive relationships points us in the right direction.
So, how do we have more positive relationships? Do they just happen? Are they a function of being with the “right” people. The answer to these last two questions is “no.” People who are in positive social relationships take responsibility. They do things to build and strengthen their relationships. Here are some examples:
- Greet others with a “Hi,” “Good morning,” or “It’s good to see you.”
- Smile and look people in the eye.
- Call people by name.
- Take the initiative; don’t wait for others to speak up.
- Make small talk by bringing up easy topics that you and others can relate to: weather, pets, events, sports, weekend activities, etc.
- Get outside yourself and be interested. “What do you have going on today?” “How are you feeling about such and such?” “How did such and such go last night?”
- Ask how you can support others. “What is going on today? How can I support you?” or, “What do you need from me.”
- Be a good listener. Ask questions that begin with who, what, where, when, how, or why, that encourage others to open up. Keep drawing them out. Don’t be afraid of pauses. Continue to show interest by giving encouraging feedback–nod your head, say “uh-huh,” “really,” etc.
- If with family members or close friends, give hugs or reach out and touch someone.
- Be present mentally and not just physically. Put aside distractions to really see and be with someone.
- Seek out those who are off by themselves.
- Give a compliment, build others up. Take it upon yourself to help people feel good about themselves.
- Do acts of kindness.
- Refuse to gossip or talk about others behind their backs.
- Respond positively rather than ignore or argue with little comments. “There is a bird on the window sill.” “There sure is. What beautiful colors.”
I could go on. This list is far from comprehensive. The point is that these acts elicit goodwill and rewarding responses from others. They put the responsibility on you to build positive relationships with others. They also make you a “giver” rather than “taker” in your personal/social relationships. They start a positive, expansive cycle in which others enjoy being with you and naturally want to give to you in positive ways. These positive interactions produce not only interpersonal consequences but bio-chemical as well. Your brain releases endorphins that result in greater feelings of joy and well-being.
Too often we become caught up in keeping score, paying attention to what others are doing or not doing to contribute to the relationship, which puts us on a downward, victim spiral. We become critical and negative and others respond to us in kind. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating. But at least we get to blame it on someone else.
DON’T GO THERE. Take responsibility for the quality of your relationships. Practice making positive choices, doing kind and loving acts that you know will lift and bless others. And trust that what you give will eventually return to bless you as well.
So join the conversation. When I write I like to think that we are community of people supporting one another in this journey of life. What are your thoughts? Or what might you do this week to create more positive relationships with those you love?
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