I wanted to understand how to create a good life, so after 20 years as a university educator, in 2013 I returned to school to study the science of well-being. The first and last thing they told us upon entering and completing the program was a quote from late professor Chris Peterson: “Other people matter.”
It took the entirety of this program for me to fully understand and believe this statement, though research backs it up. For example, a meta-analysis of 148 studies demonstrates that strong social relationships increase longevity by 50 percent and decrease the risk of coronary artery disease and anxiety (Holt-Lunstad, 2011). Low social support leads to a greater incidence of pain, depression, fatigue, immune impairment (Jaremka, 2013), and high blood pressure (Holt-Lunstad, 2011, Hawkley, 2011). Furthermore, having real friendships increases our sense of well-being and equates to a 50 percent increase in income (Helliwell & Huang, 2013). In other words, relationships affect our lives in every way, and quality and quantity matter.
We also learned about the PERMA-H theoretical framework that encompasses the ingredients for living a satisfying life, which include positive emotion (P), engagement (E), positive relationships (R), meaning and purpose (M), achievement (A) , and health (H). The acrony foundation implies that each element has equal weight, though I believe relationships areal to all the elements of PERMA, especially when we consider that we are in a relationship with everybody and everything.
Dr. Peterson’s statement seems profoundly true, and in fact, I have since formed a nonprofit devoted to helping all develop the foundational skills for creating healthy relationships.
Healthy relationships with everybody and everything
I also propose we expand his assertion to include not only our relationships with each other but also our relationship with ourselves, the Earth, and the loving force that connects us. I believe that our failure to create healthy and resilient relationships with everybody and everything is at the root of the mental, emotional, societal, and environmental challenges that we are facing.
We do not always consider that we are in a relationship with non-human beings or inanimate objects. For example, we have a relationship with money, our work/career, our bodies and our weight, our communities, the land, our pets, our homes, our material possessions, and with God or the Divine. From this standpoint, we experience a range of emotions, both positive (P) and negative; we engage (E) with those beings, things, or concepts; we derive meaning and purpose (M) from those interactions; we foster achievement (A) from those interactions. The quality of our relationships at many levels strongly influences our health (H).
In fact, what are we not in a relationship with?
What is the quality of those relationships, and which are in crisis?
The lifelong learning of relationship skills
A few years into my first marriage, I had an Aha! moment: that the hard work of marriage is not about the diapers, lawn, or mortgage, but rather the daily and mundane act of maintaining a healthy bond with my partner. The fairytale ending where one finds her Prince Charming is actually the beginning of the lifelong saga of how to make a relationship work once the endorphins of infatuation dissipate.
My own role models failed me. Though my parents honored death-do-you-part, their marriage was fraught with conflict, control, poor boundaries, and a win-at-all-costs mentality, resulting in depression, mental illness, suicide attempts, and other social and emotional issues.
My story now seems more the norm rather than the exception.
Fortunately, creating healthy relationships are learnable and teachable skills that begin with forming a solid relationship with ourselves. We must learn to understand our needs, wants, desires, talents, and personalities and to nurture all aspects of ourselves, just like we would care for a loved one. If we don’t care for ourselves first, we diminish our capacity to be effective caregivers or partners for others.
We may also be unable to distinguish between our own feelings, needs, values, and personality and those of others. Projection is a term that refers to when we ascribe our own personal traits or shortcomings to someone else. For instance, when I complain about someone else’s selfishness or arrogance, it’s really my own tendency to be selfish or arrogant that bothers me (it also turns me into a hypocrite).
Part of the relationship with the self includes understanding our identities. For example, I’m middle-aged, American, of Chinese descent, the daughter of immigrants, educated, middle-class, professional, leader, mother, grandmother, etc. I’m also responsible, hard-working, intelligent, kind, strategic, etc. Most of us cleave strongly to our identities, and if someone or something suggests otherwise or threatens this status, it can cause a very strong flight or fight reaction. By understanding that those identities are actually roles that are temporary and subjective, we can be more flexible and adaptable when change inevitably occurs.
Understanding who I am and what I need means that I can attend to those needs and my relationship with myself. Similarly, by understanding others and the ways that we are different or alike, I can also work to create a balanced, reciprocal, healthy, and resilient relationship with them as well.
The opposite is also true since neglected relationships tend to deteriorate over time. For the most part, they are less likely to flourish and can even devolve into conflict.
Our connection with Earth is an example of a neglected relationship that is right under our noses and feet. Like our relationship with human others, a healthy relationship with our natural world positively impacts our well-being (Bowler, 2010), yet many of us take this relationship for granted. My personal belief is that our looming climate crisis is related to this lack of attention and neglect, not only with respect to our physical relationship with our natural world but also to our emotional, psychological, and spiritual connection.
Skill-building as an opportunity
It’s understandable if you’re feeling overwhelmed after reading this. While, on the one hand, it may feel like too much to process, it can also be the key to improving what ails us. For instance, prior to the discovery of bacteria and viruses as the cause of certain diseases (germ theory), illness was blamed on bad air (miasma theory). Until we had a clear understanding of the nature of infectious organisms, we were unable to develop cures or prevention strategies.
I believe that many of our challenges, whether physical, social, emotional, psychological, financial, environmental, or spiritual, are because we subscribe to a fairytale-like approach to our relationship with ourselves and the world. A successful and resilient “marriage” with ourselves, our families, communities, the Earth, and our spirituality requires awareness, effort, and commitment. It’s a lifelong effort with few easy fixes, but I argue that there are few endeavors that are more important, impactful, and necessary than creating vibrant and healthy connections so that we may all thrive together.
A variety of resources are available for us to learn these skills together, including those from the Foundation for Family and Community Healing.