Understand Other People

Better communication through a better understanding of behavior

“Stop Celebrating Each Day."

"It Gets on My Nerves!”

Someone actually said that to me this past week. They were irritated with me about something I had done or said, and were regaling me with the list of my failings. This comment was particularly interesting to me. Apparently my love of life and desire to have fun each day are offensive to some people!

It wasn’t as much upsetting to me, as it was curious. The comment got me thinking about how we judge and dismiss others’ behavior as “negative” because it triggers something within us. This incident, combined with the death this week of Stephen Covey, has me thinking a lot about this. I was asked to contribute to a tribute to Covey, and asked what my favorite Covey quote or story was about. I answered that I often tell the one that Covey wrote about in his first book, “The 7 Habits.” It was about a man on a train with unruly kids. The children were running up and down and generally irritating everyone. Finally one person could stand it no more and said to the father, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you control your children?” The father looked up with reddened eyes, apologized, and explained that they had buried his wife a few minutes before. He suggested it might be because they’d just lost their mother that they were acting out. Of course the person who spoke was stunned and the rest of the train was silent.

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That story struck me at the time and has stayed with me for many years. It shows us how we just don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s life at any point in time. It also shows how focused we are on “me!” Those people on the train were interrupted. They were irritated. Their quiet ride was disturbed by these children. Now this isn’t to suggest that we don’t, on normal days, strive to contain our children in public and respect others’ rights. But it shows that instead of inquiring “Sir, is there something wrong?”, the assumption was made that this man had no control over his children and was uninterested in getting it.

Why is it that other people’s behavior impacts our happiness or sadness? Why does the person who commented negatively on my “celebrating life each day” care what I do? Unless I am hurting that person in some obvious way, how do my actions impact their responses?

If we ever want to be truly content and truly happy people, we must be willing to look at this dynamic. We have all experienced it: My day is going great until you come along. You irritate me. You frustrate me. You say things I don’t want you to say. All of a sudden, my day doesn’t look so good. In fact, all I can see is you—in the way of my happiness.

I wanted to research the science behind happiness, and find what’s been written on how other people’s behavior impacts our mood. There is a great deal of research on the subject of happiness in general, and there was an excellent article summarized in a work called “This Emotional Life.” It is a co-production of the NOVA/WGBH Science Unit and Vulcan Productions, Inc. They uncovered some fascinating ideas for those people who seek to be happier. A couple of my favorite points were that happy people tend to be more successful at work; have a higher income; are viewed as more likable and attractive; have better relationships; get and stay married; are healthier; and live longer. And that happier people are ones who tend to enjoy the journey, cultivating relationships and positive emotions along the way.

In my research, I found data from a number of experts showing the link between helping others and our happiness. In other words, to be happy, find someone else to help—don’t just focus on your own needs. But I didn’t find much about the interesting dynamic of why and how we are triggered by the behavior of others. I’m sure there is research out there, but it wasn’t easy to find.

This struck me as so interesting because, from a purely personal perspective, I have many anecdotal experiences where someone has told me that my success, or my upbeat nature, or my ability to laugh when I am frustrated was bothersome to them. Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I get down and I get angry and I get very distressed at times. I would not claim to be a “10” on a scale of 1-10 for happiness each day. In fact, “The Emotional Life” found that people who said they were a “10” weren’t really as happy as they thought they were!

It’s important for each of us to question why we let someone else’s situation, circumstances, behavior and moods impact our own. Why is it that for some of us, if a friend gets a wonderful job that we would like to have had, we are down and depressed in response? Why do we feel envious at times because someone has something that we want? Why does someone else’s bubbly countenance make us want to smack them down?

I don’t have all of the answers to these questions. I just know that I have had it happen to me in my reaction to others, and have had people—like the one this week—share feelings that I am “responsible for” in them. I think it’s worth exploring. Pay attention to your own reactions to other people and question “Why?” Don’t beat yourself up, but just become curious about it.

As a New Englander, I’ve always loved the New Hampshire slogan—“Live and Let Live”. Maybe we should all try it more often.

Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University.

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