Happiness and relationships research

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

Introduction

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.

Bugatti-car

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!

KardashiansBut 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?

Robert-Waldinger

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

Picture-of-HarvardSeventy-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.

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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?

Elderly-peopleHere’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.

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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.

Happy-coupleHe 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.

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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.

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Happiness reduces physical pain

Couple-kissingIt 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.

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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!

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Conclusion

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?

Traits of a healthy realtionshipAlthough 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.

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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.

Best wishes,

Renata

Renata Taylor-Byrne

Lifestyle Coach-Counsellor

ABC Coaching-Counselling Division

Telephone: 01422 843 629

Email: renata@abc-counselling.org

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References

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.

http://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/

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Handling conflict skilfully: Knowing your personal style…

Blog Post No. 47

12th April 2017

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2017

Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: Handling conflict skilfully: Knowing your personal style…

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Introduction

The-Satir-modelIn this blog I am going to do a ‘rave review’ of a short and simple quiz that shows us how we handle conflict in our current relationships. Some quizzes don’t give us many insights about ourselves when we’re interacting with other people, but this one strikes me as giving us a clear mirror which shows us how we deal with pressure from others.

The quiz, created by Virginia Satir, outlines the five main ways of handling conflict with others. She created a system of conjoint-family-therapy, and was a pioneering therapist who showed that families play a significant part in the development of the problems of individuals, and that blaming individual family members for their problems was unfair, because the problems the client showed up with were learned and created in the family.

Understanding how we deal with conflict at the moment

The great thing about this quiz is that it shows you a range of patterns that people play out when they are dealing with interpersonal conflict. The strategies used vary from constructive to really unhelpful and ineffective.

If you complete the quiz below, and you look at your results, you’ll be able to see your current favourite approach, and how to change your behaviour if you are not happy with the result.

The Satir Personal Styles Quiz

Here are the five ways of handling conflict which Satir identified:

The-conflict-styles

PLACATING – Pacifying, calming or appeasing behaviour. (Appeasing means to make someone calm and less hostile by giving in to their demands).

BLAMING – Holding someone to account, condemning or accusing them.

DISTRACTING – Diverting, changing the subject, cracking a joke for entertainment, etc.

COMPUTING – Assessing, analysing, and theorising about what you are experiencing.

LEVELLING – Being frank, open, honest, and above board. Telling the truth as you see it.

So this quiz tests how you react when life gets difficult: particularly during interpersonal conflict.

Your ‘blaming’ score shows how far you are liable to blame other people when under stress.  Your ‘placating’ score shows how much you tend to placate or appease.  Your ‘distracting’ score shows how much you tend to distract yourself and other people from the problems being presented.  Your ‘computing’ score shows how far you tend to cut off from your feelings.  Your ‘levelling’ score shows how far you tend to react creatively and flexibly.

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Here is the quiz: Read through this list of 20 statements.  Write down the statement number of any statement with which you strongly agree. (You will need these numbers to mark your resulting score).

Choose as many statements as you like from the list if you think they reflect you or your views.  You should choose at least seven statements.

  1. Conflict is something I try to reduce as soon as possible.
  2. If someone’s going to tell me something I don’t want to hear, I’ll quickly and smoothly try to change the subject.
  3. Conflict is healthy if it means the people involved solve a problem.
  4. It’s important that people know who’s responsible for a mistake.
  5. Catching people off-guard with a compliment is a good way to ease tension.
  6. I’ve been told I can be unemotional.
  7. I’ve been told that sometimes I let people take me for granted.
  8. I can get stressed but I try not to let it affect my life too much.
  9. Avoiding taking responsibility for my actions is a good way to shift blame.
  10. In the past, I have taken the blame for something when it wasn’t my fault.
  11. I can keep my head clear by distancing myself when those around me are getting edgy.
  12. Hopefully, people know that once a conflict with me is finished, we can then move on.
  13. I’ll fight my corner at all costs to make sure I can hold my head up high.
  14. I dislike being shouted at, so I’ll usually try to soothe the situation.
  15. If I’m clever and funny enough I can keep conflict at bay.
  16. If something bad happens, I cut off from my emotions; it feels safer to not let my guard down.
  17. I’m not scared to confront someone – but I do to do so without making the other person feel bad.
  18. Getting over-emotional during conflict is no way to solve problems.
  19. I have a long memory when it comes to remembering others who’ve crossed me in some way.
  20. If I’ve forgotten to do something I said I would, some ‘social flirting’ keeps people off my back.

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Now that you’ve chosen at least seven statements as being ones that you agree with, please draw a grid like the one below, and write in the numbers.  Then tick those numbers you’ve chosen above.

Here is the grid, containing a worked example.

1 3
7 9 11 8
10  13  15  16 12 
14  19 20  18 17
TOTAL   2 2  4  1 1
Interpersonal style PLACATING BLAMING DISTRACTING COMPUTING LEVELLING

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Scoring

Which column has the highest score?

The one with the highest score is your favourite strategy, followed by the next lowest number.

In the example in the grid above, we can see that  ‘distracting’ is the style most often chosen, followed by ‘placating’ and ‘blaming’.  So this person would be called ‘a distractor’, for shorthand description.

Satirs-five-freedomsVirginia Satir’s conflict categories:

When things get tough in our lives we choose one or more of these personality patterns. Here is more of an explanation of these styles of behaviour:

Placating

Step on a placator’s foot and they will be the one to apologise.  Placators know that peacemakers get blessed – or at least don’t get trashed.  And so a typical placatory will soothe, please and pacify.

More females than males tend to be placators. They tend to dislike disagreeing with people – even if they are being criticized.

The aim of the placator is to get others to be nice to them – and, as placators tend to be externally influenced, they’ll therefore probably go along with whatever the other person wants.  They’ll hold eye contact, smile a lot, and nonverbally ask for forgiveness.  They apologize a lot.

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Blaming

If a blamer steps on someone’s foot, they will expect the other person (whose foot they stepped on) to apologize. This is because a blamer’s classic move is to shift the responsibility away from themselves, and there are many ways of doing this: They can nag; they can sulk; they can shout; and they can hit out.  Or they can pretend that it’s not a problem and then launch a surprise attack a few hours later when everyone thinks the worst is over.

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Distracting

Did they step on someone’s foot? No. A distracter will state that they weren’t even there.  They’ll smile, or crack a joke, or say what lovely weather it is today, and do everything in order to deflect attention.  Their favourite phrase is this: ‘It wasn’t me’.

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Computing

When a ‘computer’ steps on someone’s foot, they simply won’t register the fact.  They are the one who just doesn’t seem to feel anything, and doesn’t respond emotionally to what’s happened.  They simply shut down their feelings – and can’t understand the suffering of others, if it is (or seems to be) illogical or irrational.  Or just plain ‘emotional’!

A computer style used by a person may seem like they are responding calmly to a crisis. But they are panicking just as much as anyone else.  It’s just that they are trying to handle their panic by cutting themselves off at the neck.  And actually, that’s just as bad an idea as placating, blaming or distracting, because they are missing out on the information or motivation their body is trying to give them.

So they will take action, but over-rationally.  They’ll respond, but insensitively.

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Communication-quoteLevelling

A leveller who steps on someone’s foot will notice.  Then they’ll move back.  Then they’ll ask if there’s anything they can do.  They won’t grovel, dump or look the other way – and they won’t cut off from their feelings.  They’ll be genuinely regretful – but unlike people who run the other four personality sub patterns, they   won’t go into a spiral of defensive responses.

So a leveller is going to be the one to hang in there under stress or in conflict, and simply get things sorted.  They will strike a balance between thinking and feeling – and that means that they will:

(a) Face up logically to the problem; and:

(b) Have the emotional energy to sort it out.

Whether at home or away, they’ll have the space to listen to other people, take into account everyone’s needs and find a solution.

Anyone who works with a leveller, marries a leveller, or has a leveller for a friend, therefore has an easy life.  They know exactly where they stand with a leveller, and consequently feel secure. They know that if any problems arise in their relationship then the leveller will tell them. (They will not whine, sulk, push the problem away or deny their feelings).

The bottom line is that the more positive your upbringing, the more likely you are to be a leveller. (Or you could have some corrective experiences, in social relationships or therapy, later in life).

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Learning to level

It might now be obvious that all of the ‘types’ could benefit from learning how to level with others: or to speak up and describe what is happening, and how they experience it.

Being a heavy-duty placator, blamer, computer or distracter isn’t a particularly good idea.  Not only do these personality sub-patterns feel uncomfortable to actually use, but they will not be appreciated by a boss, or by friends or close family.

First-Satir-callout

Of course, everyone runs a bit of the four more unhelpful personality sub-patterns, at least some of the time. This is not surprising, because we learn ways of behaving when we are young that seem to work. And at school, skills at maths and English and other subjects are rated much more highly than the ability to deal with people effectively and skilfully.

IQ (or the ability to take logic tests) is rated much higher than EQ (or the ability to read one’s own emotions; the emotions of others; and to communicate about both).  But when we’re an adult, the limitations of our lack of skill in handling conflict start to become much clearer. Virginia Satir’s therapeutic advice was to shift your behaviour towards helpful ‘levelling’.

Some tips

The limitations of the different ways of handling conflict will now be outlined:

  1. If you tend to be a placator:
  • You may think it’s a good sub pattern as it seems to smooth things over.
  • In fact, you won’t get what you want – plus you can drive people crazy by always apologising.

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  1. If you tend to be a blamer:
  • You may think it’s a good sub-pattern because at least no one shouts at you.
  • In fact, it alienates people – plus by shifting responsibility, you give away your power.
  • Instead, to move towards being a leveller, learn that the world’s not out to get you and that temper tantrums don’t work.

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  1. If you tend to be a distracter:
  • You may think it’s a good sub-pattern because it gets you off the hook.
  • In fact, you never get to face problems – plus you never take responsibility for things. (And taking responsibility is the first step in solving most of our problems!)
  • Instead, to move towards being a leveller, learn to face up to it when other people challenge you. Then either take their criticisms on board, or stand firm in believing you’re OK.

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  1. If you tend to be a computer:
  • You may think this is a good way to behave, because it keeps you clear of messy emotion.
  • In fact, you miss out by ignoring feelings – plus you may come across as hard hearted. If you cannot read another person’s emotions, then you cannot really understand them or communicate effectively with them.
  • Instead, to move towards being a leveller, allow yourself to pay more attention to what others are feeling; and take their emotions into account. (You might need some coaching in the labelling of emotions; and understanding how to manage them in yourself).

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Second-Satir-calloutLearning new behaviours

As you can see from the quiz above, the behaviour of someone who is a ‘leveller’ is the ideal style of communication that we can work towards, if we want to work well with other people, and have loving, healthy relationships.

But it ain’t easy! We never stop learning how to deal with people, and this quiz should help you to know the strengths and weaknesses of your personal style.

The ‘levelling’ approach reduces conflict; and also reduces stress in our bodies, because we are dealing with problems as they arise and are facing up to them.

The reality is that we can’t change other people – only ourselves! (And that, as you most likely know, is not easy!)

But we can earn our own self-respect – (which as Lord Roseberry said, is worth fourteen times more than the approval of other people) – and be a really good role model for our children and other people in our environment.

Virginia Satir’s model helps us see where we are operating from; and also what works and what doesn’t, when it comes to dealing with conflict constructively.

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Conclusion

In my opinion, this quiz, presented above, is very useful.  It raises our self-awareness, and gives us specific ways of behaving which are very useful for us if we spend a lot of time dealing with people in the work environment, or in our family life. These insights are very helpful for our own personal development, if we want to take on the challenge.

See what you think. Try the test out and see if it’s any use to you. Consider whether you could benefit from moving towards levelling.  And if I can help, you know where I am!

Best wishes

Renata

Renata Taylor-Byrne

Lifestyle Coach-Counsellor

ABC Coaching-Counselling Division

Telephone: 01422 843 629

Email: renata@abc-counselling.org

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