Blog Post No. 50
10th July 2017
Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2017
Renata’s Coaching and Counselling blog: What really makes people happy?
A ‘rave review’ of Robert Waldinger’s TED talk
It’s very easy for us in the west at the moment, to imagine that having more money, or a better house, more foreign holidays, a great new sports car or higher status at work (like getting to the top of an organisation), will make us really happy.
And if we have the right physical appearance, as defined by our culture, this can give people a feeling of confidence and self-assurance. So we obviously put a lot of investment and energy into trying to look our best!
But we did not make up these materialistic beliefs ourselves. All the relentless advertising messages, and propaganda from the media, create this illusion: Having new possessions will really make life better for us, and guarantee our happiness.
But the truth is that they won’t!
Obviously, if we are desperately short of money, have nowhere to live, or no food to eat, then food, money, shelter and clothing are crucially important for our survival.
But if we do have enough to eat, a roof over our heads, and a way of providing an income for ourselves, then some small improvements may make us slightly happier, but more material stuff is not going to make us a lot happier!
So what really does make us happy, after we have the basic means of survival?
In this blog, I will give a short account of Robert Waldinger’s TED talk in which he describes a major research study which provides powerful evidence for the conclusion that material things won’t make us happy. This conclusion is based on research that started in 1938, and is still ongoing.
The Harvard Study of Adult development
Seventy-five years ago, ‘The Harvard Study of Adult development’ was established. A group of researchers started studying 724 teenagers through to their old age. The participants were from two very different types of backgrounds:
# One group was from the poorest part of Boston: from the most economically deprived and distressed families; and:
# The other group was more prosperous, from Harvard College, and was made up of second year students.
These two groups are asked to respond to questionnaires every two years; are interviewed in their homes; have brain scans; have medical records examined; and have blood taken for testing; and they have been videotaped (as adults) talking to their partners about what is really concerning them. And (in time) the researchers talk to their children as well.
The research project is still ongoing. Three directors of research have come, served decades in that role; and the project is now being conducted by a fourth director: Robert Waldinger. And Dr Waldinger has presented a TED talk which explains the research findings.
So, what does the evidence from this study tell us about what really makes people happy?
Here’s what Robert Waldinger states:
“Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75 year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Good relationships! Not cars, or cash, or status, or houses, or holidays, or any of that ‘popular’ materialistic stuff.
Waldinger goes on to say that the researchers learned three big lessons about relationships:
Firstly, the more socially connected we are to people, e.g. family, friends, and the community, the happier and healthier and more long-lived we will be. And the opposite applies: Loneliness is toxic. People who are less connected to people than they would like to be, suffer from declining health as they reach middle age, their brain functioning becomes less efficient and they are less happy.
Secondly, it doesn’t matter what type of relationships you’re involved in; or whether you are partnered or not; or whether you have a large or small number of friends. The research results show that the crucial aspect of our close relationships is the quality. If we are living in the middle of conflict, then it’s really harmful to our health. Waldinger gives the example of high conflict marriages: If there’s no affection present in high conflict marriages, then they are really bad for our health, and are possibly worse than getting divorced.
He then states: “And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”
That is to say, protective of our health, of our life expectancy, our happiness.
Thirdly: The final important lesson that the researchers learned was that not only do good relationships make us happier and healthier, but they also protect our brains. He gives an example of someone in their eighties: If they are in a securely attached relationship, and can count on their significant other person being there to help them in times of need, then their memories stay intact for longer.
And conversely, when people who were in relationships where they felt they couldn’t really rely on the other person to help them, they fared badly, in that their memories deteriorated sooner.
Happiness reduces physical pain
It might seem that physical pain is physical pain, and that is that. But we have always known that physical pain and emotional pain are mediated through the same nerve networks. Here Waldinger explains how pain can be experienced in different ways:
“Good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80’s, that on the days that they had most physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days that they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain”.
That is to say, physical and emotional pain are either additive or subtractive. So, if you work at achieving a happy relationship, that happiness will be subtracted from any physical pain you subsequently feel.
Predicting happiness in senior years
Another insight from the research findings was that (on the basis of the information they had accumulated about the men, up to their entering their eighties), when the men had reached the age of 50, the researchers were able to predict who would grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wouldn’t.
They discovered that the people who were most satisfied with their relationships at the age of fifty, were the healthiest at age 80!
The bottom line of this research is this: If you want to have a life that is happy, now and towards the end, make sure you invest in building happy relationships – or at least one good, happy relationship – now!
Waldinger’s message at the end of his TED talk, is this:
“…Good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being…this is wisdom that is as old as the hills. Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore? Well, we’re human. What we’d really like is a quick fix, something we can get that will make our lives good and keep them that way.”
In our western societies, developing relationship skills comes way down our list of priorities: after academic skills, money-making skills, technological skills, medical skills, selling skills, entertainment skills, sports skills, construction skills, accountancy skills, legal skills, creative skills etc. As Barbara Sher said (referring, critically, to American values, which are not dissimilar to those which dominate at the moment in the UK),
“If it don’t make money, it don’t count!”
That is to say, all the propaganda of the neoliberal age emphasizes money, money and more money. And organizational power, or dominance. And none of these things will actually make you happy!
We now know, unmistakably, from 75 years of powerful research, that what will make us happy, and healthy, is good quality relationships – at least one!
So how do we develop quality relationships?
Although maintaining the quality of our relationships is the key to health and happiness, there ain’t no quick fixes. You have to work at building relationships! You cannot buy them ready made!
Werner Erhard used to emphasize that “Successful relationships are based on agreed on goals!” Yes, that’s right. Agree on! That means negotiated between equal individuals.
And Professor John Gottman stresses that you have to work at maintaining a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative moments in your relationships. So you have to learn how to do that.
As I mentioned in my last blog, Robert Bolton identified twelve specific roadblocks to communication, which, when used, are likely to negatively impact on our relationships with people.
And John Gottman was able to pinpoint four distinctive ways of interacting that can destroy a relationship and he called them the “Four horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Again, you have to learn those insights, and I teach them to my relationship coaching clients.
There are many valuable techniques that we can learn to keep our relationships of a good quality, perhaps the simplest and most apt being the one that Werner Erhard mentioned in one of his seminars on relationships:
“If you want to have a really powerful relationship with anybody, you have got to stop making the other person wrong!”
(Immediately after he said that, someone in the audience piped up: “But Werner, I don’t make them wrong. They are wrong! I just point it out to them.” You will never achieve a really powerful relationship with anybody unless you learn to stop being critical, sarcastic, condemning, judging, and so on. And I teach those lessons to my coaching clients).
Creating good relationships can be difficult at times, because it is an art form, and one you have to learn. And Waldinger states:
“Relationships are messy and complicated, and the hard work of tending to family and friends is not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong.”
But he finishes his presentation with this message:
“The good life is built with good relationships”.
If we were very lucky, we learned great relationship skills from our parents and other family members. If we didn’t, it’s important to not beat ourselves up because of that. But we then may have to learn the hard way, through trial and error and repeated experimentation, until we develop the people skills we need. And it is often impossible to learn what we need to know in this way. It makes more sense to seek out teaching or training or coaching in these skills, and learn from people who know what works and what does not work.
That’s what my partner and I did, beginning in 1984, attending couples therapy; studying assertive communication; and Werner Erhard’s relationship and communication skills; and then on to studying Dr John Gottman’s approach to relationships, including marriage relationships.
Based on our experience, of learning how to have a really powerful, happy relationship, I can tell you: the effort is well worth it.
We now know, based on the rock-solid findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, that investing time and money and energy in developing relationship skills is the most valuable investment that we can make, and will give us the benefits of health, happiness and brain longevity for the rest of our lives.
This is a really great TED talk and I strongly recommend that you watch it in full.
If you want to learn some of the techniques and skills that various specialists have developed, so that you can enrich the quality of your relationships, and you can have a happier life, then I would be very happy to help you. Please contact me to discuss possibilities.
Telephone: 01422 843 629
Here is a link to the Adult Development Study website, and there is an interview on it with Robert Waldinger, at CBS ‘This morning’, the television news programme.