Harvard’s Robert Waldinger asks: “If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?” Take a second to answer the professor’s question… Get a pencil or pen and write it down on a piece of paper. Doing this will help you anchor the learning. Don’t read on until you’ve written it down. Okay? Got it? In a second, we’ll see if your answer is congruent with findings of his research on happiness. 

What? There’s research on Happiness? Yes...

Waldinger’s inquiry may be one of the most important questions you or I ever ask ourselves and our friends and family. We all have our own working theory about what the best way to invest in our future selves. But are we right? The problem is, our answers are likely just opinions. There is little research-based guidance with science that can actually show what works to produce desirable results. 

Until now.

For 80 years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development—the study that Waldinger directs—researchers have followed and documented the lives of 724 men. (More recently, they added their wives and children). The data include detailed questionnaires each participant fills out every two years, as well as data from medical exams, blood tests, brain scans, records of interim medical exams and videotaped conversations with spouses and families.

All this data gives Waldinger and his colleagues insights into human needs we’ve never had before: They know why some people live long healthy and happy lives and why others die early after a shorter life of pain, depression and dementia.

The reason for the discrepancy between the two groups will surprise you. Refer now to what you wrote down at the beginning, the Secret to Happiness.

Research shows that the secret to happiness isn’t genetics or economic status or food or fitness regimens. Those things may influence, but they aren’t the driver. Waldinger says: “The clearest message that we get from this [80-year] study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Good relationships are the key!

Three Key Elements of Relationships

Waldinger cites three elements of relationships that emerge from the mass of data from the study. First, social connections are what support us. And conversely, loneliness is a killer.

Having friends or a marriage can cut both ways. That is, high levels of conflict and low levels of support from friends and spouse can be as bad as—or even worse than—no relationship at all. Second point: What matters is a high-quality, low-conflict relationship. Living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

Protective against what?, you might ask. Here again, the data sheds new light on human life and happiness. As people age, we tend to experience pain from various breakdowns in the body: joint replacements, arthritis, back pain, muscular and nervous conditions—on and on. It turns out that a happy person has a much easier time facing pain. People who are alone, on the other hand, feel the pain more acutely. It’s almost as if their mental suffering amplifies their physical pain, and vice-versa.  

That leads to the third point: “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.” Waldinger says the data shows that people who are in relationship with others whose loyalty they trust keep sharper faculties of memory for a longer time. Those who are not in trusting relationships suffer early decline in brain function.  

If you have read this far, congratulations! May I ask you, how do you feel knowing the secret to happiness?

If you’re like most people, you might be feeling a bit disappointed. It’s like learning that the key to life is at the top of El Capitan in Yosemite, and all you have to do is to scale the cliff without ropes to get it!

But this where the Harvard study leaves off. It shows that some people found the key to life—good relationships—and others didn’t. Those who managed to find the key (whether by skill, luck or some mysterious combination of the two) had long healthy happy lives. Those who didn’t find it experienced more more suffering, more physical pain, reduced brain and body function, earlier death.

But what about you? What about any person who knows her relationships could be better? How does she get off the sinking ship and step onto the one that will carry her through her life? How do you go about changing your lot?

How can you create good relationships in your life? 

Remember the second thing researchers learned from this study: high levels of conflict on an ongoing basis are destructive and dangerous. Let’s start there!

Changing a relationship in your own life where conflict has become habitual is never easy. You’ve got some bad habits to break. Where do you begin? Well, conflicts may be protracted by silence, but they erupt in conversations. So let’s start with the conversation.

The essence of my training for business women is conversation training. It’s a very precise and disciplined way of talking about emotions and needs. Many people shirk the model because they prefer to “wing it.” Basically that means that they want to give vent freely to their judgments. But that’s exactly why the Empathic Communication model is structured: to prevent hurting someone (or yourself) by shooting from the hip.

So even though its discipline and precise, that doesn’t mean it’s rational or unfeeling. Quite the contrary. It requires discipline because it gives both parties a chance to speak exactly what the feel.

Marshall Rosenberg, the inventor of the genius core technology of Empathic Communication (usually called Nonviolent Communication or NVC), called this process of feeling communication “sharing what’s alive in you.” Usually, that doesn’t mean what was alive in you yesterday or last year--but really what is going on for you right now. And it’s about first giving the other person space to say what’s alive in them. And listening with empathy.

But I’m leaving out a step - Step Zero.

Usually when you get upset in a situation, you need to take yourself out of it for a while to give yourself empathy. To really listen to the part of you that’s hurting and to give supportive words of love and caring to yourself. Only when you feel whole and complete, calm and restored do you return to the conflict you were in.

Here is a schematic of the conversations that you’ll want to have to resolve your conflict:

  1. Self Empathy conversation (by yourself),
  2. Empathy for Other conversation (you give empathy to the other),
  3. Honesty conversation (you share what you feel and need).

The Most Soothing Sentence in the English Language

The three conversations, at their core, are identical. They involve a sentence that goes like this: When I see/hear_______, I feel __________ because I need ___________ and my request is for you/myself to _________.

There’s actually some real work you’ll need to do before you can fill in those four blanks. The following four steps…

STEP 1. OBSERVE. Remember exactly what happened that triggered you, like a video camera would recall it: no judgment. The first time through the steps, you will recall for yourself what you observed. Remember that your observation may be inaccurate or incomplete and that the information you received may be inaccurate or incomplete.

STEP 2. FEEL & NAME YOUR FEELINGS. (Use Feelings List on the next page to name your feelings.) Name your emotions. You can begin with the big categories: Glad, Mad, Sad, Bad, and Afraid. Then get more specific. Often feelings come in clusters. Try to tease them out.  “I feel upset. I feel afraid. I feel angry. I feel nervous about feeling this way.” Note that these feelings are pointing, like a compass, to your core needs.

STEP 3. FIND YOUR NEED AND PREPARE TO FILL IT. (Use Needs List on the next page to name your needs.) Identify your needs. Begin with your feelings and follow where they point—to your needs. Needs are universal, shared by all human beings, key to being healthy and happy. They represent what you value in life and what you need to survive and thrive, to feel happiness, joy and fulfillment. Painful emotions point to needs that are unmet. Begin with the category: Security, Autonomy, Community, Possibility. Then get more specific. Go from each individual feeling you’ve identified to each need you have. Get clear on each and write

them down so you can remember.

STEP 4. MAKE A REQUEST. The request is your chance to get your needs met and to find out what the other person wants in order to get his or her needs met. Make sure your request is not a demand in disguise—you only want a “yes” if it’s heartfelt. And you’ll only give a “yes” to someone else’s request when it’s heartfelt in you. This is a radical break from unconscious and codependent unwritten “YOU SHOULD” agreements people often make and break with each other.

Transforming Relationships with the People Who Are Most Important to You

Getting through the four steps may be more difficult than you expect. If you are trying to do it and struggling, let’s talk. Here and there when I have a free time block, I’m offering a free 50-minute Breakthrough Conversation. You canschedule one by simply clicking this link.  You’ll be taken to my updated schedule. Take these three steps: 

  1. First, select your time zone from the drop down list, then click the Set Time Zone button.
  2. Then scroll through months February thru May to find an available date in bold. Click it, then click Continue.
  3. You'll be taken to a questionnaire. Once you fill it out, you'll be all set! Catherine will call you to answer any questions on your Preview Call.

Please let me know if you have questions. Thanks! 

About the Author Catherine

Catherine Cooley is a mediator and a communication coach. She has worked in environments of extreme conflict including prisons, the court system and local communities teaching what she calls "Breakthrough Conversations." She specializes in helping people foster clear, respectful, warm, cooperative relationships at home and in the workplace.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}