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What Keeps Us Happy And Healthy? The Real Key To Happiness

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Happy woman on the sunset in nature in summer with open hands

Happy woman on the sunset in nature in summer with open hands

What makes you happy? How is it that some people are happy while others are not? Is happiness related to wealth? Genetics? Environment? Culture? What do you think? Do you ever stop and ask yourself, “Am I happy?”

This is a question that I find myself thinking about from time to time, and I know I’m not alone. Not only in my line of work, but also among my circle of family and friends, I find that “happiness” is a topic of much consideration. We all know people who are unhappy and we’ve all felt unhappy at one time or another. But what I’m constantly asking is what makes someone happy. Is there a recipe for happiness that others can follow? Clearly there is a range of emotions/different levels of happiness, but from my experience and research it is evident that those who are happy possess a few common traits. It’s these traits that I really want to explore.

I’ve put a great deal of thought into this topic, and one of my biggest dreams — which has now become more of a goal and hopefully a plan that I can execute next summer — is to travel around the world and ask as many people as possible the essential question: What makes you happy? I want to travel to all different parts of the world and record two minute conversations with the random strangers I meet and then share these stories with everyone. It’s fascinating to me how different cultures and lifestyles and socioeconomic statuses can be, and yet, the desire for happiness is seemingly universal.

A recent survey asked millennials about their major life goals. The results? 80% said they want to be rich and 50% said they want to be famous. This got me thinking about the Harvard study that began in 1938 and followed 724 men for over 75 years. Today, 60 of the participants are still alive and are in their 90s. (Of course, the world was much different back then and unfortunately the study did not include women. However, women who were associated with the original participants were eventually asked to be a part of it.)

The study is still going on and now the researchers are studying 2,000 children of these men. At the beginning of the study, the teenagers were tested. Some of the participants were Harvard students and others were kids from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. The results of the study are fascinating, but the overwhelming conclusion indicates that the participants’ life happiness was not based on their wealth or fame or working harder. The research strongly shows that it was relationships that kept them happy and healthy.

The three big takeaways about relationships?

  1. Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills. The experience of loneliness is toxic. People who are more socially connected to their environment and families are happier.
  2. It is not just the number of your relationships, but rather, the quality of the relationships that counts. Living in conflict without much affection turned out to be very bad for health. The people who were most satisfied in their relationship in their 50s were healthiest later in life.
  3. Good relationship don’t just protect the body, they also protect the brain. The memory of those in good relationships was much better than those who did not have healthy relationships.

Dr. Robert Waldinger, one of the directors of the study, did a TED Talk on the subject that I think is worth checking out. I actually got tears in my eyes listening to it, and I started reflecting on how in life, we stress about getting our education, and working as much as we can, and pushing our children to do well in school and excel in as many fields as possible, but we don’t always invest in fostering healthy, strong relationships with other people. Sure, most of us do invest in our relationships with either our spouse or our children or other family members or friends to some degree, but when you see the scientific evidence backing up the positive effects of doing so, does it make you rethink how you prioritize these investments?

How about you pause for a moment and think about your relationships. How strong are they? Do you invest as much time as you wish in those relationships? When I think about people who are important in my life, I know for sure that I am not investing as much time as I would like in fostering those relationships. Clearly, we can’t foster and have strong relationships with everyone we interact with, but I find that if you think about the five relationships that are most important to you, then you will be able to designate more time putting those people and those connections at the top of your priority list.

What if while reading this you realize that you don’t have meaningful healthy relationships and you identify feeling lonely most of the time? That’s ok — because you aren’t alone in that feeling. My takeaway is that it is never too late to form relationships and find strong connections with other people, but you have to be willing to put in the work. Instead of making excuses for why you aren’t closer with your family or why certain friendships have become strained, identify the people in your life who you want to build a stronger connection with and make concrete steps toward fostering those relationships.

I am here to help you learn how to form relationships in your life and how to strengthen those relationships that you want to invest in. Here’s a quick guide, but I’d love to discuss these tips further if this is an area you feel you are struggling with.

Tip 1: Make The Time To Meet With Friends, Family and New People

How many times in the past few months have you had opportunities to go out with friends or family and you gave some sort of excuse to get out of it? “I have to work, I’m finishing a project, I’m too tired, I’m too fat, I’m too poor…” and the list is probably much longer, but you get my point. I am also guilty of doing this and often feel that my to-do list is too long to meet up with people and that it will exhaust me further or stretch me too thin. The truth is, though, when I go out and meet people I love and spend quality time with friends and family, I am much happier. And that happiness gives me a different kind of energy. If you think of your relationships as a key component of your life — in the same way you think about work and the rest of your to-do list — that you need to put time and effort into, you’ll see how quickly you reap the benefits.

Tip 2: Understand Patterns in Your Relationships

This one might be a bit tricky to figure out on your own and you might need to consult with someone you love or a professional. A private clinical psychologist or therapist can help you better understand your relationship patterns if you would like to learn about them and change them for the better. If you have a history of sabotaging relationships, then I encourage you to take the time to reflect on why that might be. Understanding your previous relationships is an integral part of forming healthier future connections. Some patterns that are disruptive include:

  • Reacting to things in anger instead of being open minded
  • Being closed to new experiences and not welcoming new ideas
  • Lack of honesty
  • Lack of respect and overstepping boundaries
  • Not showing physical affection
  • Lack of empathy and consideration to the other person and their needs
  • Being controlling or manipulative

There are other patterns that could be preventing you from getting closer to people you love and care for, but if you don’t take the first step toward understanding what these patterns are, you might continue to find yourself lonely or in meaningless relationships.

Tip 3: Practice Acceptance and Appreciation

This is easier said than done, but as someone who has been in a relationship with my husband for over 20 years and has had ample experiences with challenging relationships, I can attest to the fact that acceptance and appreciation are extremely important. For example, my mother who is one of the most kind human beings I know, is also skeptical and can even come across as negative. For years I was angry about the way she responded to things and at one point I even made a conscious decision to stop being so open with her. As I was growing up, I felt she always put my career aspirations down and had strong opinions about how I lived my life. What I eventually realized was that I had to accept that my mom’s responses are her opinions and that I don’t have to perceive them all in such a negative light. Once I did that I was able to let the anger go, which allowed space for acceptance and even appreciation for who she is. That acceptance allowed me to understand that my mom’s responses come from a place of love and can be perceived as caring or protective, rather than negative or unsupportive. When you accept certain things about the person you care for, appreciate what is good about them and focus on why you love them, it will help you be grateful for who they are instead of focusing on what you don’t like about them and wish to change.

Tip 4: Focus on the Positive

Active senior couple on a walk in a beautiful autumn nature.

This can be challenging at times, but when you focus on what is positive in your relationships and why you fell in love or cared for someone in the first place, then you are more likely to enjoy your relationship and be happier. It’s so easy to focus on the hard parts of a relationship or what you don’t like in a person. This is only human! But when you focus too much on another person’s flaws, it can blind you to all of the wonderful qualities that make them a source of comfort in your life.

Tip 5: Be Supportive

With life being so hectic, at times we forget to make sure that we are supportive of those we love. My best friend in Israel lost her dad four months ago and had a baby on her own two month agos. She was always there for me when I needed her and supported and encouraged me even in my hardest days. As I was writing these words, I remembered that I hadn’t spoken with her for two weeks and I felt terrible for not being as supportive as I want to be. In fact, I had to take a few minutes break from writing this so I could call her and see how she is doing. I have to admit, I was calling to be a comfort to her, but speaking with her brought me a great deal of comfort and happiness as well. Sometimes, when you feel lonely, one of the easiest things you can do is offer to be there for someone else. It’s easy to get consumed with focusing on ourselves, especially when we are feeling down or are in a funk, but the power of reaching out to someone is so strong and therapeutic it can help pull you — and the other person — into a better, more positive place.

Tip 6: Allow Yourself to be Vulnerable

For some people, this is a given and they naturally allow themselves to be vulnerable and open with their opinions and feelings, and for others, it is extremely challenging. What does being emotionally vulnerable mean to you? Do you allow yourself to be open and honest with those you love and care about? How about with random people? Let’s take, for example, the first minute when you meet someone and they ask how you are doing. What do you tell them? You might actually feel great, and if that is true, then there is no problem with answering honestly. Clearly, though, there are some days that you feel sad, anxious or worried about something. If that’s the case, why do you think you don’t actually share that you are not doing well? What is behind hiding your true feelings? Is it insecurity? Shame? Do you think about what the other person might think if you reveal how you truly feel? How would it be for you to share your true and honest feelings? Brene Brown, author of “Daring Greatly: How the courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” and a researcher of vulnerability for many years, states that the problem with distracting ourselves from shame, is that we also protect and distract the good emotions. She states the following, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

What would it feel like for you to allow yourself to be vulnerable? If you knew that this could help you be happier, despite the fact that it is challenging, would you be willing to give it a try? This doesn’t mean you need to tell every stranger you meet or every random encounter about your most personal thoughts and feelings. I do think a good place to start, though, is really listening to the question the next time someone you care about asks you, “How are you?” Before simply saying, “fine,” pause, think and respond from an authentic place. Even if it’s someone you are close to and trust, this can be difficult. For a lot of people, maintaining a strong front is easier, but instead of worrying about burdening another person, think about the positive effects it can have on you. The key to vulnerability is honesty and openness.

Tip 7: Be Empathetic and Compassionate.

Empathy is one of the most — if not the most — important part of a healthy relationship. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. The idea is for you to place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. This doesn’t mean constantly telling people, “I know how you feel.” Instead, it involves being selfless and putting someone else’s feeling top of mind in order to really relate to them on a deeper, more meaningful level. Empathy involves sharing emotions and when you are able to do this, you strengthen a bond. Similarly, compassion is concern for the well-being of another person. It involves being sympathetic and also willing to go out of your way to help another person and alleviate their pain or their feelings of sadness or loneliness.