Humans are social animals. It is extremely hard to survive without other people, so we apparently evolved to be happier when we have close relationships. Having several relationships in which you can share your emotions (even the unpleasant ones) and be your authentic self correlates strongly to happiness. One of the most important things we can do to increase our happiness is to invest in our relationships. While the greatest payoff is in our closest relationships, using our relationship skills in all our relationships yields a high return.
Communicate (Listen, Ask, Let Go of Outcomes)
Actively listen to others. Be curious about how they see the world. Let go of judging whether their views are right or wrong, accept that they are different. Ask people about their perspectives and their beliefs – you don’t have to accept their views, just accept their right to have them. Pay attention to their answers and repeat back to others what you just heard them say while trying to identify with whatever they are feeling. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” so ask for what you want. While it won’t guarantee you will get what you want, asking vastly improves your chances of getting it. Sharing what you hope to gain by receiving what you ask for helps others know and understand you better.“If you ask for what you want, and accept what you receive, you will get what you need.” Realize that others may not choose to or be able to give you what you want. Accept what you get and let go of the outcome. Sometimes we think having our way is what we want, when all we really need is to be heard. And sometimes what we get is even better than what we thought we wanted.
Let Go of Judgments
This is about accepting people as they are, not setting up expectations for them to be what we want them to be, and not setting ourselves up to be the judge of what is good or bad. You will find you like others better when you expect them to be imperfect, and you stop judging them. It has an important side-effect of encouraging you to stop judging yourself.Stop yourself every time the word ‘should’ pops into your head. It implies judgment, and we often use it to turn what we want into commands for others. It helps to reframe it as “I wish that person would…” Let go of any judgments about what anyone else should do or should be. Let go of any judgments that you are not good enough if you don’t meet the expectations of others. As you stop judging others – and yourself – you’ll let go of your fear of how others may judge you. Believe that being yourself – and the kind of person you want to be – is good enough. One technique to reduce your tendency to judge is to focus on neutral observation and training yourself to think, “Isn’t that interesting!” rather than focusing on whether you like or dislike what is happening.
Compassion for Others
Compassion is about opening your heart to others. It is a form of love and caring, and involves respecting the rights and dignity of others, including their right to be treated with respect, no matter the situation or their actions. It means accepting their imperfections, and seeing that even when their words or actions hurt us, they are just seeking to avoid their own suffering. A great exercise is to extend compassion to those different from us, and even those we are tempted to hate. We may never understand the experiences or motives or stories they tell themselves that lead to actions we don’t understand or condone, but we can create greater peace in our own hearts by practicing compassion for all. One way to develop our compassion is to practice a Loving Kindness meditation. You can read a version at Metta Institute. I usually add “May my heart be filled with love,” which transforms into “May your heart be filled with love” when I switch to focusing on others. My teacher, Robert Gass, has made MP3s of loving kindness meditations available through Dropbox. Start with the first level for expanding your compassion, and when you are ready, move on to the graduate level to extend your compassion toward someone who you don’t like. The peace it brings you is profound.The Dalai Lama says, “Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek,” and “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It is the ultimate source of success in life.”
Take Responsibility for Your Own Feelings
Other people do not cause our emotions. We often think other people’s actions were intended to cause the feelings we experience in response. Yet our feelings are really the result of what we tell ourselves about what we experienced, not what actually happened. The same event might stir vastly different feelings in different people, based on the beliefs they have about the world and themselves. Those beliefs are a result of how earlier experiences were interpreted. We can change the stories we tell ourselves, even about past experiences, and change how we feel today.It’s a mistaken belief to think that someone else can make us happy. A partner does not make our dreams come true. A partner can only encourage you to make your own dreams come true. When something is upsetting you, or causing you to feel distant from your partner, it’s your responsibility to share your feelings. Not sharing your feelings with your partner shuts him or her out of your life.If we expect other people to provide our sense of worth, we are asking too much of them. The only way to feel valuable is to value yourself. Self-esteem doesn’t come from the outside. It comes from what you believe about yourself. It comes from believing in yourself.
Forgiveness is about letting go of your feelings (usually hurt and anger) about something that happened. It doesn’t mean you weren’t treated wrongly, and it doesn’t mean you have to accept being treated poorly again, now or in the future. You can control whether or not you stay in a relationship with someone who treats you badly, and you can tell them when something hurts or angers you. But to hold on to the hurt and anger hurts you more than the offending party. Forgiveness is about accepting that, as humans, we are all imperfect. We make mistakes, we fail to be our best selves, we hurt each other. Holding a grudge takes a lot of energy and prevents you from moving on in your life. It keeps you connected to (and sometimes haunted by) the person who caused you harm. Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” What would it take for you to free yourself from the bondage of holding on to past hurts? If you are concerned that forgiving others for their failings means condoning their behavior, or subjecting yourself to future abuse, let go of that belief. You can condemn the action that caused harm and assertively protect yourself from future abuse while forgiving the person for her or his shortcomings (which may include failure to take responsibility for the damages caused to you and others). Be inspired by Nelson Mandela, who came out of 27 years of prison to focus on forgiveness said, “Forgiveness liberates the soul.” Sometimes it is ourselves whom we need to forgive. Some of us carry around guilt about a wrong we committed long ago. If the person you harmed is still around, you can choose to confess your error, apologize and ask for forgiveness. But at the least, you may want to forgive yourself for being human and making a mistake.Read more about forgiveness in the Psychology Today blog, A Lesson from Nelson Mandela on Forgiveness.
Be authentically yourself. It is nice to be the best self you can be in the moment, and under the circumstances. When you aren’t your best self, it pays to apologize and ask for forgiveness. When you try to be perfect, or whatever it is you think the other person wants, you are being an actor, playing a role and you are no longer in an authentic relationship. Trust that the people who really care for you will accept you as you truly are. If you discover that your relationships are falling away, check to see if you are engaging in the other practices that build relationships rather than decide you should be someone else to please and maintain your relationships.South African Bruce Muzik challenges us to take the risk of sharing our deepest secrets, the things we are most afraid to reveal to others out of fear of being judged as a bad person (perhaps for hurting the other person). Have you heard the phrase, “You are as sick as your secrets?” Your secrets can make you sick, depressed and numb, and they certainly prevent authentic relationships. Having the courage to reveal the secrets you carry brings the gift of being fully authentic and alive.
Letting people know what you appreciate about them and their behavior is one of the best ways to build relationships. Think about how good it feels to hear someone – whether a beloved or a stranger – tell you some positive thing they noticed about you or your behavior. You have the power to make someone else’s day by noticing something you appreciate about them, or something they have done. Besides making the other person feel good, you will find it makes YOU feel better too! It can become contagious as the person glowing from the compliment is more likely to notice something nice about another person and let them know. This is one little way to make the world around you a better place, which is a powerful component of happiness. Read more about this powerful strategy in this summary of Don Clifton’s Theory of the Dipper and the Bucket.
The Dalai Lama has said, “Whenever possible, be kind. It is always possible.” Be kind whenever you have the opportunity. Kindness is contagious just as happiness is, and like love, it feels good to be kind and thoughtful of others, perhaps even more than to be the recipient. Kindspring is an inspiring website that shares kindness stories and gives out Smile cards with which you can ‘tag’ people with a random act of kindness. Remember to be kind to yourself as well. Fire your inner critic and ‘speak’ as kindly to yourself as you would to a beloved child.
Show Affection (Touch Is Important)
Think of the warm sensation you get when you see an elderly couple holding hands. Hugs, gentle pats, and whatever else may become your agreed on ways of expressing affection are important! Tal Ben-Shahar still gets goose-bumps when he remembers his grandfather gently brushing his hands down young Tal’s arms or back and saying, “I’m spreading love on you.” Remember that good touch releases oxytocin, which creates pleasurable sensations. Telling people that you love (and like!) them is good, and affectionate pet names can be heart-warming. It is important to verify that the recipient interprets your affectionate actions in the way you intend, and don’t use them to dismiss their feelings of anger or displeasure, because then your actions can become destructive.Have a conversation with people who are important to you about what makes each of you feel cared for, and look for clues. Ask for the kinds of affection that make you feel good.
Share what you feel, share what you have. There is a Swedish proverb about how sharing our joys doubles them and sharing our troubles halves them. Sharing our feelings, thoughts, hopes and beliefs builds closer relationships. Sharing our problems not only reduces our feelings of isolation and aloneness, it helps us gain perspective and find solutions. “The only thing that hiding your problems accomplishes is making sure no one helps you with them.” (Credit Counseling) A sharing economy movement is building because sharing your resources not only means more people benefit from them, but it helps build community. A sense of community, which happens when people believe others care for them and are likely to help them when they need it, increases happiness and well-being. It can be sharing books, your lawnmower, or your home. It means working out agreements, which requires communications – another happiness enhancer – to prevent misunderstandings and resentments.
Choose to be happier! You have found the place to learn what YOU can do to have a happier, more fulfilling life!