It’s part of our human nature to look for meaning in life. So it’s no surprise that Positive Psychology research has shown that of all the ways that we can experience positive emotions, meaningful experiences have the most long lasting effects on life satisfaction. Meaningful experiences are described as ones where we take our highest strengths, attributes and internal resources, and we use them in the service of something larger than ourselves. The most common, everyday opportunity for us to have these types of experiences is through our relationships. Barbara Fredrickson’s book LOVE 2.0 summarizes her research on the ways in which experiencing the emotion of love, both as a giver and receiver, changes our mind, our body, and ultimately our life course through an upward spiral of what she calls “positivity resonance” – an ever expanding experience of authentic positive emotion, openness, and connection. In his amazing study of the complete lives of 268 healthy Harvard graduates from the late 1940’s until the present day, Harvard Psychiatrist George Vaillant summarizes the enormous amounts of data from his decades of research in one simple line – “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
On the other hand, relationships are oftentimes the most common source of pain in our lives. Loneliness, disappointment, frustration, worry, anger, embarrassment and shame are feelings we can all relate to – feelings that we have experienced regularly in our interactions with people, including with those that we love, and those that love us the most.
There’s an old myth about the human brain, that we use only 10% of it. It’s not clear where this old but pervasive myth originated, but what is certain is that it’s not true. We all use 100% of our brain (at least most of the time), and what the majority of the various functions of the human mind are used for is inextricably linked to our abilities to relate to and connect with other people. The challenge is to understand how to best use our mind’s capabilities to keep us in the experiences that lead to life satisfaction, positivity resonance and happiness – and how to redirect ourselves back towards healthiness when we have drifted from this path. As we’ve discussed before, we are inevitably going to change throughout our lifespan. So regardless of how our relationship experiences have been thus far, we are all able to improve these relationships capabilities if we are intentional and conscientious about how we direct change in our lives.
Three specific areas where we can learn to improve, which will pay off huge dividends in our relationships, are through empathy, communication, and connection:
Empathy – this is the experience of creating a sense of “us” when you truly place yourself into the experience of another. This is not the same as being sympathetic – “if I were in your position, what I would be feeling and doing is…” Instead, it’s more along the lines of “if I could become you for a moment, what I sense that you are experiencing is…” This remarkable experience links our minds through mechanisms that neuroscientists are still trying to fully understand, where what is happening simultaneously in both of us is a mirroring of the same experience. The person who is practicing empathy feels what the other person is feeling, and the recipient of empathy “feels felt.”
Communication – true communication is very much linked to the experience of empathy. The result of good communication is not just an accurate exchange and representation of the other person’s thinking, but rather an authentic understanding of the other person’s thoughts and experience. More than “OK, I understand where you’re coming from” (which is then usually followed by some variant of “let’s agree to disagree”), it is more of an experience of “oh…now I see what’s going on” (which is then usually followed by some variant of “let’s try and make this work for both of us.”)
Connection – In the book LOVE 2.0, in an eloquent description of the emotion of love, this excerpt describes one unique quality of this positive emotion:
“While infused with love you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others — really see them, wholeheartedly — springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself. Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections.”
Love is a positive emotion that is shared between people. It is a connective force that binds us together in the moment. It also changes our mind and body to be more open, flexible, regulated and relaxed, which facilitates an even deeper connection.
These three ideas are very much overlapping and interconnected – empathy, communication, and connection. They are also skills that we can all learn to improve. Here’s a couple of good places to start:
Also, if you are in the Los Angeles area, I’ll also be conducting a half-day Relationships Workshop on April 18th, expanding on these ideas and practices. I hope that some of you will be able to join. Registration is now open.
And in the context of my relationship with all of you and the opportunity our connection provides to have meaningful experiences in my life, I’d like to thank all of you who’ve been following along on this blog, participated in the seminars and workshops, or that I’ve had the opportunity to help one on one in my practice. I hope that we’ll continue to learn and grow together.