Relationships – Attributes of Happiness
Relationships are the second in our HRVWE model of the top Five Priorities in life. After our health, many would argue that they are the second most important contributor to our life success and happiness. Let’s look now at five attributes of relationships that seem particularly important to making them as great as they can be.
The emerging field of positive psychology asks what factors, and the personal choices that influence them, are the most important to growing and maintaining our happiness. Foresight practitioners should be roughly familiar with this research, as it is central to personal and social thriving. Happiness is apparently so important to us that it may be the single most predictive measure of our effectiveness in several areas of our lives. When foresight practitioners seek to anticipate how an individual, a company, or a society will fare over the next few months or years, nothing is typically more predictive than gauging the emotional state of the entities involved, and the ways they are managing that emotional state.
A metaanalysis by Sonja Lyubomirsky et al., “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?” (2005), summarizing 225 studies more than 275,000 participants, concluded that happy individuals are almost always more successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. Not only does success make people happy temporarily, the reverse relationship is the far more causal one: having a positive affect, being happy, directly causes and maintains our success. In other words, we aren’t typically happy because we are effective, we are effective because we are happy, and our level of happiness predicts our life outcomes. Other research has shown that our happiness with our immediate supervisor, and their level of emotional and social intelligence, comprises as much as 80% of our happiness in our jobs.
Knowing all of this, each of us should have a model of the factors that make our relationships both happy and effective. Lyubomirsky offers five key factors in The How of Happiness (2008): positive emotion, optimal timing and variety, social support, motivation effort and commitment, and habit. In Authentic Happiness (2004) Martin Seligman proposes satisfaction about the past, optimism about the future, using your strengths, being virtuous, work, love, and social connections as key variables. In The Happiness Advantage (2010), Shawn Achor offers seven principles for using happiness in a way that will maximize its effectiveness. Further research will be needed to determine which of such simple models are the most predictive of happiness.
I think of maximizing happiness as being equivalent to maximizing adaptiveness. If we live in an evo devo universe, then according to the 95/5 rule, life is mostly a journey (evolution) but it is also a little bit a destination (development). Both are equally important to adaptation. We also see this tension in Thomas Jefferson‘s lovely phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” in the US Declaration of Independence. The phrase reminds us that we are always engaged in “pursuit” (a journey) as we seek happiness (an internal state of mind, a destination). The pursuit, the journey, is just as important as getting somewhere valuable. In this view, our life is a lot like sailing. At any moment, we are off course at least a bit, yet we regularly take a Big Picture view and make course corrections. Besides having fun, and enjoying the journey, we want to go somewhere worthwhile. Both are key to happiness.
Also, as we’ll see later in this chapter, we humans cycle between emotion, cognition and action, in what we will describe as an ECA cycle, our Primal Do Loop. In this feeling-thinking-acting loop, our emotions always arrive first, as the fastest and most powerful systems in our brains. Then we use our cognition, which is slower, weaker, and far more deliberate. Then come our actions, which are even slower, and which we then review. At that point, we mentally update (or not) how we feel about that feedback, starting our Do loops again. The way we do this too is key to our happieness, or long term adaptiveness.
Until a definitive, evidence-based understanding of this issue emerges, here is our current recipe for critical success factors and attributes of an adaptive and happy relationship, to oneself and others. Again we’ll assume that our adaptiveness and long-term happiness are the same thing, or at least, they grow to be the same thing as our intelligence grows. Like most of the models in this Guide, we limit our categories to a top five, to make it easy to internalize, use, and to live. We teach this model in Foresight U, and we encourage you to adopt and modify it as you like.
Five Attributes of Happy Relationships
This model parallels the ECA cycle, as it starts with an emotional attitude, in this case gratitude, then moves into cognitive and action (behavioral) factors. Some of these five attributes are more in our immediate control than others, but all can be improved by attention, and making better choices.
The success code for these attributes is GRMVP. Here they are, a rough order of priority:
1. Gratitude. Being deeply grateful for what we have in life.
Happiness begins as a choice. You can be in terrible health, dying, and still be mentally and emotionally happy. If you are mindful and grateful for what you have, no matter what it is, you’ve made a huge step toward personal and relationship happiness. One of the most important things to learn about life as a journey is that we can be grateful for all its twists and turns, both the painful ones, which often have something to teach us, if only patience and graciousness under pressure, and the pleasant ones, day by day. This factor tells us why saying our daily gratefuls at every mealtime or before going to bed, is such a key to improving our state of mind. The most healthy self-relationship habit, related to both peak experience summaries and appreciative inquiry, is regularly reviewing what we have to be grateful for, as individuals. When you go to bed, on your own or with your partner, or instead at meals or other daily reflection opportunities, it is a powerful habit to ask: What three things are you most grateful for so far today? Not only does this remind you of all the positive and growth-oriented things in your life, removing cynicism, fear, and keeping self-criticism and pessimism in check, but if you record and review a collection of your highlights, you get more personal insight, and better understanding and care of your passions and motivations.
Again, happiness begins as a mindful emotional choice to be grateful for our lives, no matter how challenging they may be, and to help others be grateful however we can. Sometimes gratitude is not going to be our dominant emotion. We or others may need to feel anger, sadness, grief, excitement, or something else. Emotional care, of ourselves and others, is never just about gratitude. But our foundational emotion, running under everything else, all the time, like a quiet mighty river of great strength, should always be gratitude. We want gratefulness for our lives, and gratefulness for our ability to be with and help others. Gratitude, above all else, keeps us sticking around, rather than choosing an early exit from life, as a tragically large number of people do every year. This Gratitude attitude is the thing we most easily control, no matter our circumstances. If we stay consciously grateful, our appreciated moments and days add up to a happy life. This is why the foresight method of appreciative inquiry is such a powerful first step toward building happier teams. It is by no means all we need, but it is an important, and often neglected, first step. All foresight facilitators should consider using it at the beginning of their workshops, as it opens people up to collaborating on the hard work before them.
2. Responsibility/Autonomy. Taking responsibility for, and recognizing our freedoms in, improving our own circumstances.
Besides a grateful attitude in our relationships, we need to take responsibility for improving our circumstances, and realize more of the aspects of our lives that are in our control. Taking responsibility for our lives allows us to see all the autonomy (freedom) we have to make ours and others lives better, and to fight for more of both of these in our workplaces and social lives. We can also recognize that each of us is already free in our own minds, no matter our circumstances. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) is an incredible story of personal growth while being tortured in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Early on, Frankl realized his grateful-for-life attitude, and his personal responsibility for his own emotional and mental responses to his circumstances and to his captors were fully within his control, regardless of what his captors did to him or others. This realization allowed him to maintain his sanity in an insane environment, and to help others do so as well.
Note that right wing thinkers like to think about this factor from the responsibility side. They point out various ways that our growing Nanny State acts to take away our personal responsibility, making us dependent, demotivated, and disempowered. Izzo’s Stepping Up (2012) is a good primer on the importance of responsibility to life happiness. The left can learn from the right by understanding their approach to this critical life factor.
Note that left wing thinkers like to think about this factor as autonomy or freedom, both in creating freedom to do things (options), and freedom from undesirable things (rights). They point out all the ways that our economic and political environments act to limit our freedoms, or deny then to certain groups. Sen’s Development as Freedom (2000), is a great primer on autonomy and its relation to happiness. Give a young child more freedom to make its own choices, and watch its happiness immediately increase. The right can learn from the left in this respect as well.
3. Mastery. Becoming adept at something, so we can make meaningful contributions within a social community.
Next, we need to build mastery, skill by skill. Remember Tony Robbin’s core statement (mantra), “repetition is the mother of skill.” Remember also his admonition, “make good decisions constantly.” Nothing is as energizing, nothing will lead faster to self-improvement, in any area, than a good decision that you commit to live by, long enough to evaluate whether it is in fact good for you. Read Cal Newport’s excellent So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2012) for a great introduction to the kinds of life priorities (choosing our masteries first, and finding our most enduring passions later) and mastery-building techniques (intense bouts of practice, always to the point of failure, and under expert guidance on a regular basis, for feedback) that will have you and your clients building their chosen masteries as fast as possible. See also Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016). Watch a young child learn a new skill, and their happiness is radiant, at the precise moment of self-mastery. As social animals, we also all need a loving and supportive community in which we contribute, exercising our mastery. The power of this factor can be summed up in a simple phrase: “If you want to be happy, make others happy.” Find a community to serve, and serve it. Immediate happiness is as simple as this. Our brains release dopamine, oxytocin, and other happiness neurotransmitters and hormones even when we simply contemplate helping another person. One can get instant happiness from serving others even without the other attributes, but for happiness to last, the other factors must also be present. For more, see Roko Belik’s documentary Happy (2011), which has a strong focus on the role of community. Growing up, our community doesn’t have to be large or diverse. We each need at least one person who unconditionally loves us and believes in us as children, and who we love and serve as well, to be mentally healthy and happy.
4. Virtue. Having a moral compass, and getting joy from its constraints, regardless of our circumstances.
Our morality, conscience, honor, sense of justice, and virtue are internal constraints that we develop through our own deliberations and feedback from our community. As we mature, our community grows, ideally to include all life, and ideally we strive to make our values consistent with what the universe apparently wants. We start forming an idea not just of a larger purpose, but of social progress. We become aware of the need to make both ourselves and our communities more virtuous and just, which is different from serving them. We become activists for a better world, and that activism involves conflict. The virtue attribute was commonly discussed by 18th century philosophers, but is often overlooked today. As our virtue grows, we can have satisfaction in it, even as the world torments us. Many soldiers in what they consider to be “just wars” have gone happily into battle, and died at peace with themselves, convinced that the sacrifice was worth the principle involved. Those who don’t know this mindset don’t yet understand that our virtue, from our own perspective, can be worth more than our lives themselves. Given the power of our sense of honor and conscience to control us, we must take special care to help every human being develop a world view that includes all of us in one community. We need to empower children to develop a global moral sense, and to play and work fairly. We need to ensure all people have a living wage, and regular recovery options (daily, weekly, and yearly time off from work) to rebound from daily stress and traumatic events. We must help people to resist overspending and many other destructive addictions. We all know high-performance, high-income people who have no work/life balance, who still can’t live within their means, or who are prisoners to other dysfunctional thoughts or behaviors. They have a lot going for them, and may even regularly serve others, but they are still missing one or more of the key attributes preventing their happiness – an internally virtuous life. We help each other understand what virtue is, step by step. The first step is recognizing that something you are doing, or not doing, is making you or your loved ones unhappy. Talk to others about it and try to understand why, then try some solutions and talk some more. One of the most important virtues is what the Buddhists call lovingkindness. Try to be loving and caring in your words and actions to others. When you could say something that would be hurtful or an ultimatum, in a relationship, don’t. Use virtue to exercise restraint. You’ll soon discover small ways to get the relationship back on a better footing. You can have crucial conversations without being hurtful, or giving ultimatums. John Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage (and all Relationships) Work, 2015 and Patterson and Grenny’s Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High, 2nd Ed, 2011 are both excellent guides to virtuous communication and behavior.
5. Purpose. Finding a set of socially valuable purposes, and a calling greater than ourselves.
Finally, we need to find a higher purpose or purposes to which our masteries are applied. Finding a purpose greater than ourselves, so that our personal difficulties look small in comparison to it, is another a major attribute to happiness. Recall Frankl’s ordeal in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. After recognizing his own mental freedom, and his responsibility to maintain it, Frankl came to understand that his highest challenge was finding purpose (aka meaning, or “logos“) in the suffering that he endured. All the domains of foresight can help us greatly to find socially valuable purpose, and our spiritual foresight path, whatever that may be, can help us find the highest purpose we can envision and believe. Daniel Pink’s lovely book Drive (2011) explores three of these attributes, autonomy, mastery, and purpose, as core drivers of workplace happiness and effectiveness. Note that Pink’s three factors are in our model, so it offers us 3/5 of what we need to understand personal happiness. It’s only missing the mindfulness and the virtue pieces. There are lots of misdirected and evil people who have autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They don’t look back on their lives as happy later, either. They do what they do often because they’ve forgotten how to do otherwise. It’s our job to call them out on their shit, and get them back to a place of more virtue. That takes conscience, conflict, and activism.
We can remember these five GRMVP attributes of happy relationships with a mnemonic. Think of your GRandmother being the Most Vital/Virtuous Person of her household. See her keeping your home happy, more than anyone. Or if you are a Trekkie, think of Gene Roddenberry as the Most Valuable Person to date in Sci-Fi. See a happy Roddenberry getting a lifetime achievement award for creating Star Trek.
How would you rate yourself on these five attributes today? Are you grateful? Responsible? Free to make your own choices? Do you know your best skills, and what community you serve? Are you being virtuous? Do you know your purposes?
Going back to the HRVWE model of our top life priorities, and discussing health as a foundation for happiness, how good is your physical and mental health? When was the last time you laughed, made a joke or took a vacation? Maybe you need one now. Go take a ten minute walk vacation, and come back with a smile, a gleam in your eye and a grateful and self-responsible attitude.
Are we still missing anything from this model? Let us know, thanks! By being aware of and monitoring these attributes, you can greatly improve your own and your client’s happiness and life outcomes. We wish you a deeply happy life.