What Makes a Happy Life?

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Every year, at the end of the summer, when I have returned from our trip home to visit family, usually combined with a little holiday somewhere else in Europe, I am in a contemplative mood. I wonder what creates the happy and content feeling of the summer and how to keep it going the rest of the year. In previous years, I have written about vacations being a Vacation Away From My Planner Self, about Our Vacation Self and whether Vacations Make Us Happier.

As uncovered in previous years, the link is not a direct link between holiday time and happiness. There is, however, a correlation of happiness and spending time with family or close friends. The level of happiness is not dependent on the fact whether I can afford to go on vacation, but it is dependent on what I do during my time off. Deep nurturing connections, love, laughter, support, and acceptance are all factors in our experience of happiness. Spending time with a loving partner, or having fun with your family members or people who you feel close to, have the effect to increase your happiness.

One of the longest studies on happiness is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. For 75 years, several generations of researchers tracked the lives of 724 men from two very different walks of life. 60 of those 724 men are still alive today. Perhaps a bit gender biased in the original set-up when first started in 1938, the study at a later point included their wives as well. One group of the participants in the study started out as Harvard sophomores who almost all went to serve in WWII after college. The second group consisted of boys from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Boston, young men from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families.

Harvard Study+of+Adult+Development

Robert Waldinger, the 4th director of this study, reports about the findings and lessons on happiness in his excellent TED Talk “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.”

The one main lesson that stands out in this 75-year-long study is that happiness is “not about wealth or fame or working harder” (Waldinger). Instead, the one important insight not to miss is that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier” (Waldinger).

Mark Twain - The Good Life 2

 The Harvard researchers have learned three important facts:

  1. Social connections with our family, our friends, and our community are extremely beneficial for us. They keep us physically healthier and allow us to live longer.
  2. It is not enough to have relationships, for example to be married or have family, but the quality of our close relationships matters. High conflict marriages in which we feel lonely and unsupported are detrimental to our health. When we are in a relationship with little affection or with toxic interactions, the stress and loneliness shorten our lives. Living in the midst of good warm relationships, on the other hand, is protective.The Harvard researchers found that they could predict—based on the relationships people were in during their 50ties—how healthy they would be at age 80. The men who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. In addition, most happily married men and women reported that on days when they had most physical pain, their mood still stayed positive. Men and women in unhappy relationships, on the other hand, experienced that their physical pain was magnified by their emotional pain.

couple, old, happy

  1. The study also showed that good relationships do not just protect our physical bodies, but they also protect our brains from decline. There was a clear correlation about being in a securely attached relationship in your 80ties and memory loss. Happily married people experienced that their memories stayed sharper longer. Those people who were in relationships wherein they felt unloved and felt that they couldn’t count on their partner experienced greater memory decline.

This does not mean that we have to always get along well. Relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time to be healthy. Waldinger reports that some couples could bicker day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could count on one another when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll. That is in line with John Gottman‘s research findings. He showed that marriages don’t suffer because of arguments, but that it depends on how a couple argues and what basis the relationship has.

As humans, we like a quick fix, but as Walding points out, “relationships are complicated, messy and hard work” and that this work never ends. I would like to add that relationships are also full of moments which are simple, joyful and easy. However, relationships always require attention and effort.

Harvard Study, old couple

The people in the study who were the happiest in their 80ties were the ones who had “leaned into relationships with family, friends and community”. What does it mean to lean into your relationships?

It starts with making time for family and friends, or doing something new together with a loved one, or reaching out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years. Forgiveness, letting go, healing our own wounds, opening our hearts, reaching out to have difficult conversations, and communicating successfully are all part of building relationships which keep us healthy and happy.

Relationship Energetics provides you with tools and opportunities to build a good long life by building better relationships. Join Dhebi DeWitz and myself for the three day

Relationship Energetics Training

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Groundhog Day – Communication Styles

“Just tell me right out what is wrong!” says our exchange student. And I can’t help but feel that this situation is quite surreal. I came to Canada from Germany 16 years ago and have since adapted to the Anglo-American indirect communication style. I can still feel that need to blurt right out what I am feeling bubble up at times but I dutifully squelch it—most of the time—because I have learned such uninhibited “vomiting” of thoughts or feelings will not be well received.

So for almost three weeks I have been saying things like, “Your dishes can go into the dishwasher. The frying pan needs to be washed in the sink,” and I assumed, based on my current social environment, this would translate into, “Please put your dishes into the dishwasher and clean the frying pan after you have used it.” I have also been saying, “Do you have an alarm on your phone you can set for in the mornings?” instead of “Please set your alarm for 6:30 and get up by yourself.” And “Please text us your plans,” instead of “We are having dinner at 8:00. If you are not planning to be home for dinner, please let us know ahead of time.”

It is not that this direct way of speech is unfamiliar to me. Had I been speaking in German, I would have automatically slipped into those phrases in German. But with the language and cultural context, I had made assumptions. I expected the receiver of my communication to be capable of inferring from my words to the meta-message.

communication - responsibility lies with sender

We make assumptions all the time. Do you have a family member or co-worker who is not responding to what you are trying to convey? Does it feel like they don’t hear you? We can feel so alone and get really frustrated when that occurs. However, we need to keep in mind that the responsibility for communication always lies with the sender.  Communication is successful when the sender’s message is correctly received and understood. Therefore, it is the sender’s responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively and to check the understanding of the delivered message.

I had not done that. I had found myself in a rendition of Groundhog Day, where each morning the almost 18-year-old man needed to be kicked out of bed after oversleeping, and where each morning, after his departure, the dirty frying pan and spatula were sitting on top of the stove and the unwashed plate and cup in the sink. What does Bill Murray do in Groundhog Day? He first goes crazy until he decides to let go and enjoy himself in the ever repeating reality.

Groundhog-Day

If you are feeling like it’s Groundhog Day, you neither have to go crazy, nor just let it go. You have the key to ending the miscommunication by changing your end of it. That might be the content of your messages, the tone of your voice, the non-verbal signals, or all of the above. When communication is not working, it’s not the receiver’s fault. Too often, we make people wrong in the process of not being able to get through to them. Their communication style is not wrong, just different.

Sometimes when communication is frustrating we feel irritated and annoyed. That sends additional interfering messages to the person at the receiving end. They feel not good enough in some way, perhaps like a burden, or unappreciated, or lectured to, or criticized. Step one is to check your communication honestly for that destructive energy. When we can perceive the receiver as willing and capable, our meta-message is one of trust and respect, instead of annoyed superiority.

Step two, change the choice of your words and double check the result. You might have to try out something completely different that you have not tried yet, and monitor the result. Sometimes your words might be too indirect; at other times the words might have too much edge. Do you perhaps need to use gentler start ups to ensure your receiver remains open to receiving your communication?

I am glad our Groundhog Days at home are over. I am very impressed by how us adapting our communication style slightly has allowed our exchange student to also adapt to planning ahead and being very considerate. Communication can create frustration, but when successful, communication creates wonderful bonds of connection.

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Please check out the upcoming relationship workshop which will include tools for more successful communication, especially for conflicts.

Angelika Baum

Belief Change and Relationship Coach

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca