When Harvard declares that investing in good relationships helps us live longer, happier lives, the world listens. In an epic longitudinal study, 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression, decided to find out clues to healthy, long and happy lives. The remarkable study continued well into an analysis of the third and fourth generation of pioneers.
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives,” the study revealed. “Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes,” it noted.
A dear friend gifted me a book – Ikigai, truly a gift indeed. Ikigai has its origins in the Japanese island of Okinawa, which is home to the largest population of centenarians in the world. This elicited enquiry into the factors that help people live longer, healthier and happier lives.
This legendary Japanese philosophy helps people identify their motivation to jump out of bed each morning, finding their purpose in life. It also outlined several healthy habits as the reason for life longevity, well over a hundred in this case, and one of them is to “surround yourself with good relationships”.
On the home turf, author and motivational speaker, Shiv Khera exclaims that “relationships are one’s biggest assets”.
How can any of this be questioned? It is true that we experience joys, stability and security in affiliation. But a question eats away at my acceptance of all of the above and that is, why must one look outside and be dependent on uncertain external factors for happiness? Is that not a dangerous territory? As a counselor, I have seen so many people suffer, ranging from disappointment and grief to suicidal behaviour, because of our social learning and programming that happiness and self-worth lie in relationships. The more we have, the more likeable we are, the more our worth. What of those who have lost love?
Henry Murray and David McClellands theory of motivation marks a high need for affiliation as a key motivating factor for some people, a need for power and achievement being the other two. “N-Aff”, as we Psychologists study it, is our need to feel involved, accepted and “to belong”, “needing” warm interpersonal relationships and “approval” from others. While affiliating, strong bonds have a significant impact on well being, my worry remains that this is “dependent” motivation and happiness.
Relationships in life are important and there is a great sense of satisfaction we get from belonging to a tribe. The fun and laughter that the camaraderie brings literally gives us a huge kick in the form of endorphins. But, like with everything good, there is a flip side.
The most significant outcomes of such pressure on relationship forming and maintaining across the board for “happiness”, is losing oneself, living in fear of losing relationships, feeling inadequate when relationships don’t last, getting bullied for the sake of inclusion and last but not the least, the dark side of the pursuit of finding purpose in relationships, simply because they are dynamic, never completely in our control and make us dependent on others.
I have seen what relationships can do, having counselled couples through abuse, infidelity, depression, anxiety, domestic violence and divorce.
I have seen the impact of externalising ownership in the name of love, possessiveness, authority and dominance. People losing themselves for the sake of inclusion with anxiety percolating through gashes in self-esteem caused by desperate needs of reassurances from others. We see every day in the news; relationships gone horribly wrong.
Why, I have also seen beaming faces of children in orphanages and destitute homes, who don’t have any relationships to boast about, some who have had no visual or tactile experience of a meaningful relationship since birth and yet, they are full of glee, joy and life. A deep contrast to some faces I see in my clinic, of people with large families. You see now, where my question comes from. I have strongly believed in the ownership of happiness and purpose and practiced and taught the same.
I worry that those who value affiliation too much would be the first to shatter in the face of loneliness. These words come not just from empathy as a professional but from first-hand experience of unbearable pain that came with loss of some treasured relationships. I survived. And I wish to help understand what about relationships brings happiness and how the various research and wise declarations about happiness in relationships need to be consumed.
I believe it is the purpose we find in cooperation, sharing, loving, supporting and a feeling of community that gives us happiness. And that purpose does not go away with the relationship gone, we can shift focus to giving the same to another. Adding value in our relationships gives us happiness and, this purpose, I suspect, adds health and vigour in our minds and bodies.
Even when one is left alone, rejected, abused or abandoned, they can give and contribute purposefully to others. With this, the weight from sustaining all and every relationship lifts. Finding purpose gives us a construct to bank upon, that is internal, consistent and relatively more in “our hands” than in others’ moods or simply destiny.
Hold a mirror and love what you see. When we do that, we are able to perceive relationships for what they are, not for what we are. You are not equal to your relationships, not in the length, intensity and certainly not in numbers.
Dalai Lama said, “There cannot be friendship without trust”. When trust and authenticity in relationships are compromised, it is not upon you to bear the cross and make it work at all costs. We have a relationship with ourselves before anyone else. Self-respect, trust and being valued as you are, is not a worthy compromise for the sustenance of relationships, especially if they are meant to be our biggest assets.
Robert Waldinger in a TED Talk about the same Harvard study declared “When we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old, it was how ‘satisfied’ they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” And that is what the narrative has missed and what we often miss understanding.
“Satisfaction” is a feeling that comes from within. It can come from one and be absent amongst many. Once we shift focus from relationships to within ourselves, we may derive satisfaction in giving even to those who may not give back. Happiness lies in our choice of adding value and not expecting. So many of my clients learn to overcome challenges in their relationships because they focus on what they bring to the table, on their purpose making them satisfied, rather than on the other person staying which causes so much anxiety and pain. There is an internal locus of control when we perceive, analyse and derive satisfaction. It becomes an independent, concrete, self-driven and purposeful phenomenon in our relationships.
This is my humble argument, case and quest.
(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist.)