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Relationships

3 Evidence-Based Lessons for Living a Good Life

Studies point the way to a good life, even if you got off to a rough start.

Key Points:

  • Cultivate social relationships for happier, healthier, longer life.
  • If you had a tough childhood and you struggle with low self-esteem, intimacy, shame, and/or anxiety, consider exploring mindfulness-based methods of cultivating self-compassion and self-acceptance.
  • One key to success in life is finding the right fit for who you are, in love, work, and other domains. You don’t have to heal all your old wounds and remedy all your imperfections to live a happy and meaningful life.
elenabsl/Shutterstock
Source: elenabsl/Shutterstock

1. Relationships matter a lot. Not just romance, but all social connections.

 Mary Long/Shutterstock
Source: Mary Long/Shutterstock

In a remarkable study that followed over 700 men for 75 years, with their wives joining the study later, researchers at Harvard found that the quality of people’s social relationships was by far the strongest predictor of their quality of life, both psychological and physical. Participants who reported stronger social connections, including marriages and friendships, reported greater happiness, less stress, less cognitive decline, and greater resilience in the face of illness and pain. They also lived significantly longer (click here to see a TEDx talk on the study) . Other studies have confirmed and expanded the Harvard findings with larger and more diverse samples.

Social isolation, particularly when it causes loneliness, is strongly linked to anxiety and depression and an increased risk of suicide. Isolation can become toxic: over time it can have a powerfully negative effect on health and longevity, roughly equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Interestingly, in one study, loneliness actually predicted a weaker response to the flu vaccine (no such evidence exists regarding the vaccines for the Covid-19 virus).

Takeaways:

  • Invest in relationships, both intimate and platonic. If you are prioritizing work over romance and friendship, that may come at a steep cost to your physical and emotional health. Interestingly, neglecting relationships to spend time at work was one of the biggest regrets in a study of older Americans.
  • If you’re in a troubled relationship, don’t ignore the trouble. By the time most couples seek out a therapist, severe damage has already been done. Find a couples therapist sooner rather than later, attend (live or online) a couples workshop like those offered by the Gottman Institute (their website has some excellent resources for couples), or just take time to really listen to each other and see how you might find your way back to the feelings that drew you together originally. And if none of this works, maybe it’s time to let go and open up to a new relationship. Unhappy marriages, over time, have harmful effects on health similar to that of social isolation.
  • Exercise is great, with a host of psychological and physical benefits and few downsides. But if you’re working out frequently while neglecting to cultivate friendships or an intimate relationship, you may be undermining the benefits of your exercise. Can you make your workouts a social experience? I’m an avid solo runner, but I also climb, and the climbing community is key part of my social world.
  • Material possessions generally don’t bring lasting happiness, and they certainly don’t reduce loneliness. If you’re lonely, a new smart phone won’t change that. Maybe invest that money in a few courses or workshops, or travel (once it becomes possible), or membership in a social organization. Check out a spiritual community, learn to climb or dance, or explore a Meetup group (Meetup is an international activities-based organization with groups for every imaginable interest). During the pandemic, when many single people are struggling mightily with isolation, it’s clearly more challenging to strengthen social connections. If the weather prevents you from meeting outdoors, form a pod of people you trust to be as cautious as you regarding the virus. Reach out to friends and family with video calls. They’re not the same as in-person visits, but the contact is real and it makes a difference.

2. A rough childhood doesn’t condemn you to an unhappy life.

One of my favorite constructs in psychology is that of “ earned secure attachment, ” a term coined by psychologist and mindfulness expert Daniel Siegel .

When children are raised in homes where they are consistently responded to with warmth, affection, and comfort, they tend to develop what is known as a secure attachment style. Children who are securely attached are more likely to develop healthy relationships with peers and adults, and less likely to struggle with low-self-esteem and anxiety, than children who don’t have the good fortune to experience warm and responsive parenting. Securely attached kids also learn that painful feelings can be tolerated, and they learn, through the comfort of others, how to comfort themselves and how to seek out support when it is needed. Because they don’t anticipate rejection or abandonment, they neither cling anxiously in relationships, nor do they keep people distant to avoid being hurt.

Unfortunately, a lot of people, roughly 40% in some studies, grow up with insecure attachment styles. Insecurely attached children, as they grow older, are more likely to fear intimacy even though they may long for it, because their early relationships with parents (or other caregivers) were painful, unreliable, and frightening. They may struggle with chronic anxiety, low self-esteem, and feelings of shame.

Mary Long/Shutterstock
Source: Mary Long/Shutterstock

Thankfully, our early childhood experiences don’t have to determine the quality of our adult lives. In fact, there is growing evidence that we can develop what is known as “earned secure attachment”, a secure attachment style, with all of its wonderful benefits, that comes not from early childhood, but from positive experiences later in life. Such experiences include:

ACT, IFS, and MBCT are all mindfulness-based therapies, which help clients develop the capacity to notice and sit with difficult feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them. I find IFS especially compelling because it helps people to recognize unmet needs, old fears, and unhealed pain, and to respond with compassion and acceptance to unwanted or split off parts of themselves. Tom Holmes has written a marvelous guide to IFS or “parts” work that you can use on your own or in conjunction with an IFS-trained therapist.

  • There are wonderful mindfulness-based mental health resources for healing and growth that you can access online or in live workshops to help you achieve an earned secure attachment. I recommend the teachings and guided meditations of Dr. Tara Brach, Dr. Jack Kornfield, and the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, but there are countless others. There are also a lot of helpful mindfulness apps. I use Insight Timer, which includes not only a meditation timer, but also a large number of guided meditations with wonderful teachers and access to communities of other practitioners.

3. You don’t have to “fix” yourself to live a good life.

You know the old saying, “You can’t love another person until you love yourself?” It’s poetic, but it’s just not true . There are a lot of people in loving relationships who struggle with self-esteem, and for whom cultivating self-love is an ongoing process.

We are imperfect beings, and many of us carry the scars of old wounds. This doesn’t mean we can’t find and sustain loving relationships and close friendships. The trick is not to master the art of self-love and then seek out a relationship; instead, we need to find a partner, and friends, to whom our many strengths and positive attributes are appealing, and our particular vulnerabilities and foibles are tolerable (and maybe even endearing). Put simply, success in love, and in the rest of life, is about finding a good fit, even more than it is about self-improvement. And as a bonus, a loving relationship with a securely attached partner can help us heal from old wounds and discover that we are, in fact, lovable—a belief that is at the heart of earned secure attachment.

This doesn’t mean that healing from past emotional injuries and cultivating self-acceptance and self-compassion are unimportant; on the contrary, personal healing and growth can only improve our relationships and our overall quality of life, especially if we are stuck in self-defeating patterns of self-criticism, fear, and self-doubt. But success in life is not primarily about self-improvement. It’s about finding a good fit between who we are, our strengths and limitations, and the people and settings we seek out.

Psychology has tended to focus narrowly on understanding and changing individuals, while disregarding the power of situational factors as they affect our wellbeing and shape our behavior. For example, depression may have its roots in early experiences or distorted cognitions, but it may also result from a harsh working environment, being laid off, feeling stuck in an unhappy marriage, feeling socially isolated, or encountering discrimination at school or work. If we overlook these situational factors, we risk viewing ourselves as damaged or defective in some way. This can lead us to focus on trying to change ourselves, when it may be more productive to change the situation that is causing our distress.

Further Reading:

  • To learn about strengthening your relationship without first healing all of your “baggage”, see John Gottman’s wonderful book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
  • To read a fascinating account of how we tend to overlook the power of contexts on behavior, see Malcom Gladwell’s bestseller, The Tipping Point
  • And to understand how the failure to consider situation factors has led to an overly narrow focus on “fixing” individuals and ignoring harmful settings, see the classic book Blaming the Victim by psychologist William Ryan. It’s dated, but his argument is still relevant and cogent.
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