Five surprising principles for living, loving, and playing well with others.
Impressing others, managing money, advancing your career: No matter what your aspiration, there's a wealth of accumulated knowledge to help you reach it. But if your highest goal is to lead a satisfying life, your best shot is to seek out wisdom that helps you cultivate strong relationships of all kinds. Studies show that people who enjoy close ties with friends and family are happier, have fewer health problems, and are more resilient to the stresses of our times.
Elizabeth Svoboda loves to learn and write about the science behind what motivates people in a variety of situations.She has contributed to publications like Discover, Popular Science, Psychology Today and the New York Times, and her first book, What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, comes out in September 2013. She lives in San Jose, CA, with her husband, Eric, and baby son, Nate.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
"Good social connections aren't just important to living a fulfilling life—they're vital to any type of healthy life at all," says Will Meek, a psychologist at Washington State University. "When we lack stable and supportive relationships, we can become depressed and anxious."
Moreover, our connections provide some of the best opportunities to grow in meaningful ways, says psychologist Harriet Lerner: "Any relationship can be a laboratory where we experiment with bold acts of change and learn something about ourselves, the other person, and the possibilities between us."
When it comes to seeking out bona fide relationship advice, don't limit yourself to self-helpbooks—hard-won real-life wisdom can be more valuable than anything you'd find at Barnes & Noble. It's also wise to approach conventional relationship truisms with a critical eye. We've culled the data, consulted the experts, and arrived at some essential lessons that depart from hand-me-down norms.
Lesson #1 THE ROLE OF RADICAL ACCEPTANCE
You can't fix the ones you love, so focus on fixing yourself.
Decades ago, the musical Guys and Dolls lampooned our universal urge to change others with the lyrics "Marry the man today, and change his ways tomorrow." The idea that we can fix perceived flaws in our partners, friends, parents, and grown children, making them behave the way we want, remains tantalizing.
A healthy dose of ego often convinces us that our way of looking at things is right, but the truth is that trying to "correct" someone else's flaws usually backfires, says psychologist Paul Coleman, author of "We Need To Talk": Tough Conversations With Your Spouse. "It implies that we're coming from a more enlightened place, that we have a deeper knowledge of what's best," he says. The other person may get the message that he or she isn't good enough, and turn resentful—creating an atmosphere that smothers affection and creates distance.
A healthier approach when you don't see eye to eye in a relationship you want to keep: "Look inward to fix the problem rather than trying to change the other person," says Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel—even if that just means practicing acceptance. If you know your partner hates large gatherings, consider attending the next party solo so he doesn't have to make forced conversation and you don't have to leave early (and annoyed). Or if your son says he wants to forgo college for now, try to express enthusiasm for his budding career as a nature guide instead of bombarding him with links to school rankings.
Making accommodations like these involves the crucial recognition that there are some matters on which you're never going to be in sync—and that you're willing to accept this in order to preserve the other's autonomy. "You have to say, 'We have this permanent difference, but we need to learn to live with each other,' " Coleman advises. Regardless of whether the other person changes, such acceptance communicates the basic respect that keeps relationships solid over time.
Lesson #2 THE BEAUTY OF BENIGN NEGLECT
It's more harmful to overparent than to underparent.
They provoke eye rolls from teachers and developmental experts alike: helicopter parents who hover relentlessly over their kids to keep them safe and fulfilled—see them sprinting over to the swings to right a playground injustice or emailing schools incessantly to check on their kid's progress. Then there are the gung-ho attachment parenting types who believe they must constantly wear their babies or share a family bed in order to build secure bonds.
In its various forms, the über-doting mentality seems logical on the surface. Parents want their children to grow up feeling loved and happy; in an uncertain world of real (or perceived) dangers and intense competition for jobs, they may feel compelled to run interference to give kids every possible advantage in life. "There's a huge distrust in other parents and society's institutions that pushes parents to overparent. They overestimate the influence they themselves have on development," says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.
"Parents lack trust in children's desire to be competent and that nature will influence the course of development. They distrust that attachment is built into normal parenting, that it emerges from the basic routines of caring for a baby," she says. The compulsion to intervene becomes even stronger when parents view their offspring as surrogates for the fulfillment of their own happiness and deferred dreams, adds Tufts University child psychologist David Elkind, author of The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children.
But regularly stepping in to protect maturing kids from stress—or assuming they need you at all times in order to feel secure—may hurt them in the long run. Relationship expert Michelle Givertz, assistant professor of communication studies at California State University, Chico, has studied hundreds of parent-young adult pairs and found that age-inappropriate overparenting leads to depression-prone, aimless kids (and ultimately, adults) with "diminished self-efficacy," lacking the ability to put a plan in place to achieve goals. "By not letting kids stumble over the little things, parents prevent them from developing coping skills," Marano agrees. Without them, kids don't acquire a sense of mastery and self-confidence, she says. And that fosters long-term dependence on parents.
Continuing parental overinvolvement is also associated with increased entitlement, Givertz has found. Children who are used to getting everything they need from their parents without exerting any effort may think, "I'm entitled to everything, but I don't have the abilities to achieve what I want," which can result in further disappointment down the line when the real world doesn't dispense recognition on command.
In contrast, practicing benign neglect with your children "is like inoculation."
If kids struggle over a little adversity, they learn specific coping skills and gain the confidence that they can take whatever comes their way," Marano says. Underparenting just a bit—stepping back, giving kids the chance to recognize that you're there for them even when you're not hitched to their side, that they're capable of picking themselves up when they fall down—is the only way they'll internalize the strength of the parental bond and a sense of their own competence.
So let kids live with disappointment and resolve their own problems as much as possible, while assuring them that their feelings are heard (even if you're the one saying "no") and that you're available for moral support. Trust in their ability to tackle whatever obstacles they might encounter. "Our job as parents is to help kids become self-sufficient," Givertz says. Letting them grapple with disappointment is some of the best training they can get for dealing with the larger challenges life will inevitably throw their way.
Lesson #3 OPPOSITES DON'T FOREVER ATTRACT
Seek a mate whose values and background echo your own.
The key to a happy, healthy relationship is choosing someone who is, quite frankly, a lot like you—a person who validates your existing views and habits rather than trying to change them. This might sound politically incorrect, but the old "opposites attract" adage generally doesn't hold up over the long haul. Studies have repeatedly underscored the role of homogamy—shared values, personality traits, economic background, and religion, as well as closeness in age—in romantic success.
The more a couple shares a similar perspective, says Glenn Wilson, a psychologist at Gresham College in London, the less conflict there's likely to be in their relationship. Wilson developed a compatibility questionnaire that reveals a wide range of preferences regarding lifestyle, politics, child-rearing, morality, and finances. (Questions include "How important to you is sexual fidelity?" and "How do you think domestic chores should be allocated?") He's found that partners whose answers are comparable are more apt to report satisfaction with their love lives.
Still, Wilson stresses that some similarities are more vital to relationship success than others—it's critical to find common ground in terms of personal values. (If your partner thinks that attending church every Sunday is important and you don't, conflicts could fester.)
Still, regardless of how well the two of you score on compatibility tests, you need to feel a spark of attraction—something that can actually come from the differences between your partner's interests and passions and your own (such as: you like photography and cooking, she likes hiking). "Homogamy is important for long-term satisfaction, but complementarity really makes a difference in terms of sexual passion," says Givertz. "When couples are overly similar, it can be a little bit of a brother-sister relationship—really predictable, without a lot of novelty."
So what's the happiest medium? Seek out a partner whose passions differ enough to expand your experience, but with whom you are aligned on important big-picture issues like how to show affection, what constitutes a moral life, and how to raise children.
Lesson #4 SOCIAL NETWORKS MATTER
The strength of your friendships is as critical for your health as the lifestyle choices you make.
We've all heard the usual advice for living longer: exercise more, quit smoking, limit junk food. But nurturing your relationships plays an important role as well. Supportive friendships may do as much to promote your physical well-being as a top-notch diet and workout regimen. "The higher the quantity and quality of your relationships, the longer you live," says Bert Uchino, a psychologist at the University of Utah.
The connections that sustain us physically as well as emotionally can be hard to come by in a world where many work from home or live far from old friends. While cellphones and Facebook can help us feel connected, it's worth the effort to build up our in-person network as well. Some of the strongest evidence to support this theory comes from Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University, who collected data from 148 previous studies looking at the relationship between health and human interaction. What she found was startling: People with active social lives were 50 percent less likely to die of any cause than their nonsocial counterparts. Low levels of social interaction have the same negative effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day—and even worse effects than being obese or not exercising.
Meanwhile, research by psychologist Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University suggests that the more social connections you have, the greater your ability to fight infection. He gave healthy subjects nasal drops containing a cold virus; those who reported the greatest diversity of social ties were four times less likely to develop colds than those reporting the fewest (he controlled for factors that could have explained the discrepancy, including age, BMI, and time of year). But it's not just how many relationships you have that's important—the type is also key, according to Uchino's research. He recorded the blood pressure of 88 women in a stressful situation (preparing to give a speech) and found that readings spiked less when a close friend was available to offer participants encouragement than when they were with a friend they perceived as less supportive. The finding suggests that close friendships may have protective effects on our cardiovascular systems, especially in times of anxiety.
Researchers speculate that the stress associated with low social support sets off a cascade of damaging reactions within the body, including cardiovascular dysfunction and weakened immune resistance. "Stress has potentially negative effects on health and well-being," Cohen says, but knowing your friends have your back can help prevent such fallout.
Lesson #5 LUST DIMINISHES, BUT LOVE REMAINS
Being inured to your partner isn't the same as being out of love.
A slew of misconceptions persist with respect to relationships: If you're with the right person, you'll rarely experience conflict. The spark should stay alive all on its own. Life should be a continual state of wedded—or paired-up—bliss.
Too often, couples assume a relationship is damaged beyond all repair when the tear-your-clothes-off period of sexual and emotional excitement ends and the arguing begins. Part of this mind-set comes from the widespread cultural belief that it's easier to cut ties than to stick it out when discord arises. "The immature part of us hates confronting our limited ability to invest in someone else and loves the idea that compatible people don't have conflicts of interest," says psychologist David Schnarch, author of Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship.
But research and real-world experience don't support this mythology. University of Denver psychologist Howard Markman, coauthor of Fighting for Your Marriage, has found that successful couples argue—it's how they go about it that determines their continued relationship satisfaction (among other things, happy partners refrain from hurling nasty zingers or withdrawing from conflict). Airing grievances is necessary, since it allows both people to speak their minds and take responsibility for their missteps.
It's also normal to experience a waning of sexual desire once you've progressed past the giddy initial stages of a relationship. Arriving at such a point actually offers an opportunity to deepen your relationship in ways that would have been impossible at the outset. "Romantic love is when we have this consuming, emotional experience with another person, and it usually lasts about a year and a half," says Washington State University's Meek. "Deep love comes after—after we see how imperfect the other is and commit ourselves to them anyway."
All relationships are messy: "If you want to build a history together, be prepared to hang in for the full range of feelings that make us human," says Lerner, who wrote Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up.The only formula for fixing the frustration and stagnation you'll both inevitably feel is to take concrete steps to resolve them—but that doesn't mean unleashing a litany of complaints, she says.
Instead, focus on the lasting bonds that remain in the relationship. Rather than asking yourself, "Am I still in love with my partner?" try asking, "What can I do to restore our connection?" It might mean sparking some excitement in your less-than-thrilling sex life by initiating something new and unexpected, or perhaps it's as seemingly simple as recycling that pile of basement boxes that's annoyed her for months. Or maybe the first step is sitting down for a 20-minute conversation about what's been stressing him out at work, one where you resolve to hold back your opinions and really listen.
Finally, remind yourself that a committed relationship requires continual doses of effort in order to progress, Meek says. "People know what warms their partner's heart," Lerner adds, "but usually we're too angry or settled into the distance to actually do it."
Meta Lessons from the Gurus
Colin Weatherby asks 3 pillars of real-world wisdom for their go-to life advice.
"Too often we do things for people that we would like but they might not. What's important to us might not be what's most important to those we're trying to help. I've learned to simply ask, 'How can I be of help to you?'" —Regina Brett, author of Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possible
"It is not logic that assists one in moving toward the yearnings of the heart, but faith and courage. In pursuing one's dreams, applying logic is often illogical." —Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing
"The widespread belief among politicians and pundits is that high test scores are everything. I strongly disagree. What matters most is character. Working hard, treating others with respect and honesty—those are the keys to success." —Hal Urban, author of Life's Greatest Lessons: 20 Things That Matter