Get a group of your friends together in one room.

Now ask them all what happiness means.

And ask them what happiness meant to them 10, 20 or 30 years ago, depending on your age group.

My bet is your friends’ ideas of happiness have changed as they’ve grown older.

When we’re young, we want fame and fortune.

As we mature — and fame and fortune gets out of reach for most of us commoners — we want less stress, more family time and less work. Even people who achieve fame and fortune are often unhappy, always searching for something else.We pursue simpler forms of happiness but even then the pursuit seems endless, sometimes fruitless.

Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret. If you want to be happy, you must have healthy relationships with the people in your life.

A study for the ages

Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger was part of a team that conducted one of the longest, most complete studies of adult growth in psychiatric history. The director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Waldinger adopted the study of lifelong happiness that started in 1938. The original researchers identified two different groups:

  1. 286 Harvard sophomores
  2. 456 teen boys growing up in inner-city Boston

Every two years, each man was surveyed on his qualify of life and, every five years, he underwent physical testing.

Waldinger made his great reveal in this TedTalk last fall:

Good relationships, says Waldinger, have the power to keep us happier and healthier.

Stronger relationships = living longer

No matter which group in Waldinger’s study, the men who reported being closer to their family, friends or community tended to be happier and healthier than their cohorts.

They also lived longer.

The men who said they were lonely reported feeling less happy and had more physical and mental health problems.

This isn’t earth-shattering.

Challenging relationships can cause:

  • Heightened stress levels
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased production of cortisol, the stress hormone
  • Sleep problems
  • Dependence on alcohol and/or drugs
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Conversely, good healthy relationships help build healthy people.

A 2012 worldwide Gallup poll show people who say they have strong relationships with family and friends are more likely to be satisfied with their personal health.

Harvard’s Lisa Berkman, one of the researchers, says the lack of a supportive social network hurts us.

People who are socially isolated tend to have more physiological stress, poorer immune function, and a host of biological risk factors. They also often have riskier health behaviors like heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption. And they can have worse access to healthcare.

Communication builds stronger relationships

Good, healthy relationships don’t just happen.

We have to work at them.

We must ensure the lines of communication are open and understood.

I recently put two co-workers into an exercise. One — we’ll call her Anne — tells the other — Jackie — she enjoys conflict too much. Jackie was shocked.

Now, Jackie is direct. She’s assertive — not aggressive — and very performance-oriented.

Essentially, she knows what she wants and she goes and gets it.

But that attitude puts Anne on the defensive.

After three years of them working together, they finally got this out in the open and realized they weren’t speaking each other’s language.

When I deploy the SDI Personal Strengths Inventory with a corporate team, everyone starts to learn more about each other’s motivations and how they communicate their needs.

For these two women, Jackie needs to continue expressing her needs but maybe remember to couch her words with some compassion and understanding. Anne needs to work on not taking her colleague’s assertiveness personally.

Our filters make us assume

We make assumptions about others and our own personal filters affirm those assumptions as we build our relationships.

Those two women worked together for three years before we got them to their “A-HA” moment.

Now there’s been a radical shift in their relationship.

These filters and assumptions affect all of our relationships, from work to marriage and from friends to neighbours. We have disagreements, feelings get hurt and one person backs away or takes a defensive stance.

We end up with conversations that should, but never, happen because one (or both!) of us is not being heard or feeling valued.

We use our own motivations as the standard to evaluate everyone’s behaviour and, if we fail to understand someone’s motivation, we start speaking a different language.

Happiness comes when we have a better understanding of the people we’re in relationships with. Waldinger recognizes in his TedTalk that the healthiest men worked at keeping their relationships strong.

“Over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community,” he says.

We have the ability to change our filters.

We have the ability to understand someone’s motivation.

We have the ability to speak another language.

When we have more information, we can update your files.

When we update our information, we increase our happiness factor.

Doesn’t that sound worth the effort?

I am Janice Otremba. I am a professional speaker, trainer and coach that specializes in stress management, health and wellness, personal growth and life balance. I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions, to determine how I can be of service to you. I can be contacted at info@janiceotremba.ca.

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