Category Archives: Relationships

More Thoughts on Love

While I’m on the subject of love, I thought I’d share some musings from American author, feminist, and social activist bell hooks’ reflections entitled All About Love: New Visions.

CLARITY: Give Love Words. As Erich Fromm tells us, love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s growth.” In this view, love is an action, not a feeling.

JUSTICE: Childhood Love Lessons. There can be no love without justice. We must teach our children to treat others with respect and dignity. We must instill in them (and ourselves) a responsibility for their actions.

loveHONESTY: Be True to Love. The heart of justice is truth-telling. We may find gain in lying – to avoid conflict or discomfort, or get what we want, or eschew responsibility. Yet lying erodes trust, the foundation of intimacy. One cannot know love in a context of secrecy and lies.

COMMITMENT: Let Love Be Love in Me. We foster personal growth through constancy. We expand our capacity for trust, care, respect, and responsibility. We must create homes, workplaces, and communities where love thrives.

SPIRITUALITY: Divine Love. When we live our lives in connection with Divine Spirit, we experience the presence of divine love in all living beings. Love unites and binds all life. It is a way of living that acknowledges and honors our interdependence. All awakening to love is a spiritual awakening.

VALUES: Living by a Love Ethic. This sensibility declares that everyone has the right to be free and live fully and well. When put into practice, this ethos places the value of human life above material considerations and the accumulation of wealth. Living into the fullness of love dispels avarice and fear. It is the ultimate gift of freedom. It enables us to embody a generous and neighborly view of self-preservation.

GREED: Simply Love. Fixating on wants and needs traps us in a cycle of endless craving. Love cannot abide in addiction. By choosing to live simply, we break the bonds of greed and free up our capacity to love.

COMMUNITY: Loving Communion. Love is not reserved for romantic partners; it is the foundation for engagement with ourselves, family, friends, and associates. It allows us to face conflicts, betrayals, negative outcomes, and unfortunate events in a life-affirming way. It teaches the merits of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Enlightened, healthy parenting gets a boost when situated within extended families and supportive communities. Children deepen their practice of core values and gain fluency in honest, forthright communication.

Mutuality: The Heart of Love. Love flourishes among equal partners for whom both risk loss, hurt, and pain for the sake of reveling in the joy of interdependence. It does not happen spontaneously; it requires patience and practice.

ROMANCE: Sweet Love. When try love happens each partner feels attuned to the deepest and most authentic identity of the other. Psychotherapist John Welwood captures this essence as follows:

“A social connection is a resonance between two people who respond to the essential beauty of each other’s individual natures, beyond their façades, and who connect at a deeper level… It is a sacred alliance whose purpose is to help both partners discover and realize their deepest potentials.”

The Art of Loving

If I were to ask 100 people to define love, I’d get quite a range of responses. I’d expect most to narrate love in terms of feelings they experience in relation to family members, romantic partners, close associates, treasured pets, and/or humankind as a whole. They’d certainly be influenced by scores of poems, songs, stories, and other works of art on the subject. But for a far less sentimental approach, I turn to Dr. Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.

Fromm locates our deep-seated yearning for love in a desire to transcend separateness. Interpersonal union acts as a salve for anxiety-producing aloneness. Yet Fromm cautions against seeking love’s healing balm amidst feelings that come and go. While we feel great when falling in love, what happens when the excitement inevitably wanes? In like manner, true love cannot be found by cultivating an object of affection in expectation of basking in the glow of the other’s eyes. Such behavior may satisfy an instinctual need but does not form the basis for sustained happiness.

According to Fromm, mature love emanates from a condition of inner wholeness and independence; it demands nothing from the beloved. Such love establishes an abiding bond that unites the parties while maintaining each person’s integrity and individuality. It finds expression in the sharing of joys, interests, understanding, knowledge, dreams, humor, sadness, and all other manifestations of our “aliveness.”

Mature love is characterized by four foundational elements: (i) care and concern for the life and growth of the beloved; (ii) responsibility for taking action in response to the beloved’s needs; (iii) respect for the beloved’s unique individuality and developmental journey, and (iv) deep knowledge of the beloved’s life. These elements do not stand alone. Fromm tells us:

“To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. Knowledge would be empty if it were not motivated by concern.”

the art of lovingA practitioner in the art of loving must strive for mastery in four essential character traits: discipline, humility, faith, and courage.

Discipline forms the basis of excellence in any art form. It is an expression of personal will along with an intention to make continuous improvement in one’s abilities. When applied to love, discipline implies proficiency in skills that may seem tangential – e.g., being sensitive to oneself, living fully in the present, avoiding distraction, listening with the intent to understand. It also implies an exercise in patience. One never masters an art when expecting quick results.

Humility serves as the antidote to narcissism. We must learn to experience life and the people with whom we share it objectively. We must not taint our perceptions with our own desires, interests, needs, and fears. Fromm deems humility, objectivity, and reason essential to love.

Rational faith implies reasonable certainty in our convictions and confidence in our powers of thought, observation, and judgment. One who has faith in oneself can have faith in others – the core of who they are, the reliability of their fundamental attitudes, their love. “Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.”

Love also requires courage – the ability to accept risk and a willingness to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security cannot truly love or be loved. “To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person.”

In short, Fromm sees love as an attitude and an activity. It is the active use of one’s powers in a constant state of readiness to be open and giving toward the beloved. It is an attitude that must prevail in all aspects of one’s life, not just toward the object(s) of one’s affections. An attitude of openness, objectivity, and generosity determines the relatedness of a person toward the world and is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.

Making Marriage Work

“People with the greatest expectations for their marriages usually wind up with the highest quality marriages.” – Dr. John Gottman

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Dr. John Gottman and his “Love Lab” at the University of Washington. This lab is an apartment that hosts couples for short stays while monitoring their behavior and select biometrics (with all due respect for privacy). Through observational analysis, scientists predict with 91% accuracy which couples will endure. The last post covered healthy and unhealthy ways to navigate conflict. This one summarizes findings from Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.

make marriage workNot surprisingly, happy marriages are based on deep friendship in which the partners share mutual respect and genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. Trust and commitment are “weight-bearing walls.” The partners have faith in one another and let positive sentiments about the relationship override negativity as it arises. Each person’s happiness is contingent in part of the other’s feelings. They support one another’s hopes and aspirations.

With that backdrop, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues unearthed the following seven strategies for cultivating an emotionally intelligent marriage.

Principle #1: Enhance Your Love Maps. A love map characterizes a partner’s joys, likes, dislikes, fears, stresses, hobbies, interests, etc. When we enhance our love maps, we are making cognitive space for deep knowledge of our partners. We stay attuned to changes in their lives. We can more ably predict what they are thinking and feeling. These sensibilities help us provide effective support and enable us to navigate conflict successfully.

Principle #2: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration. Focus on your partner’s positive qualities and express appreciation for them. Take pride in the other and your history together. These habits of mind cultivate the sense that one’s partner is worthy of love and respect. We find it easier to like as well as love them.

Principle #3: Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away. We each make “bids” for attention, affection, and support throughout the day. Successful couple turn toward their partners and respond 86% of the time; those who eventually divorce turn toward only 33% of the time. Such interactions can be as simple as looking out of the window and saying, “Wow. What a beautiful day,” and the other responding by looking up and saying, “I know!” Turning toward also means that when our partners need us, our worlds stop, and we are 100% present for them.

Principle #4: Let Your Partner Influence You. Share power. Consult one another in important decisions and take the input seriously. Be a team player.

Principle #5: Solve Your Solvable Problems. As they arise, get in touch with your own feelings and sensibilities while cultivating empathy for your partner. Recognize that there are two valid sides to the story and take responsibility for your part in engendering conflict. Then communicate effectively by: (i) Establishing a safe space to enter into discussion; (ii) Make and receive “repair attempts” to de-escalate tension; (iii) Soothe yourself and each other by taking “time outs,” listening to music, going for walks, etc.; (iv) Finding common ground and compromise; and, (v) Processing any residual grievances so that they don’t fester.

Principle #6: Overcome Gridlock. Even with the best of intentions and stellar communication skills, we may stumble upon irreconcilable differences. Dr. Gottman finds that these matters tend to be signs of hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are a part of one’s identity and confer meaning and purpose. They are frequently rooted in childhood. So, the task at hand involves getting behind the surface level tension and figuring out why a position carries such weight. That understanding may open up avenues of flexibility, illumine pathways for support, and establish ground rules for compromise, even if temporary. Again, the core of the discussion centers on mutual respect and high regard.

Principle #7: Create Shared Meaning. This practice has to do with what it means to be a family member and how we build a life together. Its four pillars are: (i) Rituals of connection – i.e., structures or routines that are enjoyable and reinforce intimacy; (ii) Support for each other’s roles as spouses, parents, sons/daughters, friends, employees, hobbyists, etc.; (iii) Shared goals; and, (iv) Shared values and symbols.

Dr. Gottman’s book provides gaggle of exercises through which couples can explore these principles in depth. It’s well worth a careful read.

Happiness = Good Friends + Good Experiences

whiskey and cigars
There’s nothing like cool summer nights in Beaverton for creating wonderful experiences in our own backyard. And we created some wonderful experiences this weekend!

My dear friend opted to use our outdoor space for her piano studio recital. The event was the first of its kind in 2 years, courtesy of COVID. Her students were well-rehearsed, excited, and real pros as they introduced their selections and performed them. Oh, how I love encouraging budding musicians! A group of friends stayed after to enjoy spirits, delicious food, and fellowship. I absolutely loved it!

We spent all day Saturday getting ready for an even bigger party on Sunday during which friends gathered for a visit by an out-of-town chum. To mark the occasion, we had a live band, more spirits, more food, and more wonderful fellowship. Yet again, we stayed out late talking while a gentle breeze kept us cool and relaxed on the patio. Sheer heaven!

According to Dr. Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD of Amherst College, my experience of weekend bliss accords with what researchers have learned about happiness. The quality of our relationships is the single greatest predictor of happiness. It takes a bit of effort to find the folks with whom we feel a sense of kinship. (It took me ~5 years after our move here.) One found, it takes time, energy, and effort to nurture those cherished relationships.

Some may think: But what a minute? What if I got that big promotion? Or won the lottery? Wouldn’t such events be bigger determinants of happiness than friends?

It turns out that we aren’t terribly impacted by big life events – even winning millions of dollars! After the initial thrill, we tend to adapt and return to our previous set point. We can, however, increase our set point through right action. In particular:

Take care of ourselves by eating properly, exercising, and getting the right quantity and quality of sleep.

Spend our money wisely by investing in experiences rather than things. As with those big life events, the thrill of a new thing wears off once we become acclimated to it. But a great experience shared with good friends bring anticipation during the planning phase, joy in the moment, and wonderful memories that can be revisited time and again.

Avoid comparisons with others. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” To that end, Dr. Sanderson tells us to be wary of social media. It can make us feel as though everyone else is living a more vibrant life than we are. We forgot that most people only post their “best of” moments, not the full range of their everyday experiences.

Give to others; volunteer. When we are generous with our time, talents, and resources, we feel better about ourselves and the difference our lives’ make in the world.

Express gratitude. As the bookend to avoiding comparisons, practicing thankfulness helps us focus on everything that is going right in our lives and will have a ripple effect on the way we feel about ourselves.

Think good thoughts. A positive attitude carries the day for sustaining happiness through the ups and down of our lives.

The Love Lab

happily marriedThe Good Life Project podcast recently featured a segment on marriage with Drs. John and Judy Gottman, PhDs. They’ve spent decades unearthing the “science of relationship” by placing thousands of couples under a proverbial microscope and seeing how they interact with one another and how they respond physiologically to one another. Dubbed The Love Lab, their research center has been in operation since 1986 at the University of Washington. Its sophisticated mathematical models can predict reliably the future course of a relationship based on observed behavior. You can read all about it in John Gottman’s book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail… And How You Can Make Yours Last.

Love and respect provide the foundation for every healthy marriage. Partners model these qualities by consistently serving up at least five times as many positive feelings toward the other as negative. These feelings include showing interest, expressing affection, being thoughtful, being appreciative, showing concern, demonstrating empathy, being accepting, joking around, and sharing joy.

Healthy marriages navigate conflict successfully. The Gottmans identified three models that work in stable marriages:

  • Validating: These partners choose their battles carefully and remain calm while listening attentively to one another’s perspectives. Each acknowledges that the other has made valid points and gives them due consideration. They see themselves as a team and look for middle ground on which they can both comfortably stand.
  • Volatile: These partners hear each other’s viewpoints in the heat of the argument. They don’t try to understand as much as persuade. They see themselves as equal, independent sorts who revel in the intensity. Their battles may be epic, but their make-ups are even grander. They live and love passionately.
  • Avoidant: These partners are conflict minimizers who dodge and hedge to avoid confrontation. They value individuality in union and do not attempt to persuade or compromise. They agree to disagree and trust that their bond is strong enough to overcome stand-offs. They don’t press the issue under the assumption that it’s not worth working through.

In addition to embodying a functional style for disagreement, healthy couples use “repair mechanisms” in the midst of disagreements to ensure that they do not spiral out of control. They include:

  • Reminding one another of their mutual love and respect
  • Defining or commenting on the process and where things currently stand
  • Taking note of when the discussion goes off topic
  • Requesting space to finish one’s thought
  • Letting the other know when a comment or attitude has caused pain

Gottman defined unhealthy styles of disagreement as either Hostile/Engaged or Hostile/Detached. In the former, the partners argue hotly, often using insults, name-calling, put-downs, and sarcasm. They don’t communicate with the intent to forge understanding. Hostile/Detached approach conflict by being emotionally uninvolved.

Unhealthy marriages manifest toxic negativity that proves corrosive over time. The Gottmans deem these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Criticism constitutes attacking the other party’s character or personality as a means of assigning blame. For example: “You didn’t take the garbage out again. You are so lazy.” Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to lodge a complaint when one’s partner chronically foregoes a previously negotiated responsibility. However, the complaint shouldn’t mutate beyond the specific behavior into a global attack. A complaint is specific and begins with an “I” statement rather than a “You” statement. It also provides a way for the person on the receiving end to be a hero. Revised example: “I am frustrated about the garbage situation. It would take a load off my mind if you could remember to take care of it every Monday night.”

Defensiveness occurs when one feels victimized or attacked and chooses to take up a defensive position. It can manifest as denying responsibility, making excuses, lodging a cross-complaint, yes-butting, whining, and displaying agitated or closed body language (crossing arms and/or legs, shifting weight from one foot to the other, grimacing).

Contempt suggests an intention to insult and psychologically abuse one’s partner. It comes from a place of moral superiority and manifests in insults, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, and body language (curled lip, rolled eyes). It elicits shame in the other person and weakens their immune system. Contempt may be the most damaging of the Four Horsemen.

Stonewalling provides no communication, no eye contact, no response. It conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness. While suggesting detachment, physiological measurements suggest that the stonewaller experiences a heightened state of arousal (“fight or flight”) and may use it to combat the feeling of being overwhelmed.

When these four behaviors take root, the relationship may experience a downward spiraling of discord. Fortunately, there are strategies that all couples can leverage to strengthen their partnerships and avoid suffering.

  • Schedule discussion of contentious topics when both have the time and energy to address them with civility. Focus on one issue at a time; don’t try to process a backlog of issues all at once.
  • Structure disagreements – e.g., stay on topic, hear one another out, validate the other’s perspective by “walking in his or her shoes,” persuade, negotiate, and then resolve.
  • Communicate nondefensively. Choose a positive mindset toward your partner. Give voice to your thoughts with the intention of being heard and understood (without walls going up!) Be an engaged listener. Exhibit open and loving body language.
  • Stay calm. Keep breathing. Check your heart rate. Notice tension-inducing negative thoughts and replace them with positive, validating, soothing ones. Take time outs as needed to settle down.
  • Practice, practice, practice. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Keep honing behaviors that work until they become automatic.

While all of the foregoing insights came to fruition in the context of marriage, they apply equally well to family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Lasting Marriage

On the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary, Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas co-authored What Makes a Marriage Last: 40 Celebrated Couples Share with Us the Secrets of a Happy Life. It’s a charming book filled with stories and commentary that’s worthwhile reading for anyone considering the matrimonial adventure… and for those of us in the thick of it.

Here are themes that found resonance throughout the book:

lasting marriageThe initial spark of attraction finds durability in a shared outlook, shared values, and friendship. Each partner shows up emotionally available and provides the space where truth, trust, respect, decency, loyalty, and intimacy flourish.

“Looks fade, abilities come and go. So does money. But the character of a person is what you hitch your wagon to.” – Bryan Cranston, actor, director, producer, and screenwriter

“I don’t trust anybody more than I trust Rebecca to have my best interests at heart. And I have respect – genuine respect for her, too.” – Dr. Sanjay Gupta, journalist, medical correspondent, and neurosurgeon

Both partners keep marriage and family at the forefront of their busy lives. They step up, contribute, and feed the good of the whole. They’re “in the foxhole” together no matter what life sends their way.

“You deal with whatever they’re dealing with. Their issues become your issues.” – Tracy Pollan, actress and wife of Michael J. Fox

“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” – The Reverend Jesse Jackson, civil rights activist

“There is no Plan B. No matter what, we want to work it out.” – Kyra Sedgwick, actress

Each partner values and appreciates the other without expectation of change. Each provides space for the other to pursue passionate interests and continue growing as an individual. Each is a source of sound advice, encouragement, and support. Each takes genuine interest in the well-being and happiness of the other and allows shortcomings to be revealed without judgment.

“Judy’s position is that there are three things involved: the two spouses and the marriage itself. They’re all separate and they all have to be addressed.” – Milton Viorst, journalist

“You’ll be the comedian who I know you can be. I trust you with this.” – Janice Crystal in the early days of Billy Crystal’s stand-up career

“We’re a team, professionally and personally. There’s probably been no other person who comes anywhere close to him [Bob Woodward] as being my advisor and my encourager, who says to me, ‘Take a leap, do that thing you want to do, try something hard,’ or ‘even if you don’t want to do anything at all, that’s fine, too.’” – Elsa Walsh, journalist and author

“I told myself, no matter what he says, do not have any expression on your face. If you have an expression, he might clam up and feel ashamed or judged in some way.” – Kelly Ripa, actress and talk show host

Even after years of togetherness, they are still excited to see one another and really enjoy each other’s company. They keep the romance alive through love notes, date nights, doing things (large and small) the other really values, and giving each other full attention when together.

“Keep shaving your legs.” – Gloria Estefen, singer/songwriter

They’ve learned to communicate effectively; they get the big things right and let the little things take care of themselves. When differing in opinion, they remember that their partners are people they love who proceed with good intentions. They are sensitive to what their partners might be going through and bide their time before attempting resolution.

“If you have the zinger, don’t say it. Especially when you remember you’re the one who lives deepest in the other person’s heart, and that you can hurt them the most.” – Peter Hermann, actor, producer, writer

“We would never say anything in the heat of an argument that we could not live with after.” – Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author, journalist, and social activist

“The secret to a long marriage is a short memory.” – Arlene Alda, photographer and writer

They keep a sense of humor!

The book ends with these final thoughts:

“There is no one secret to a lasting marriage, there are a million secrets. So keep looing for them. Because the longer you look, the more you’ll discover reasons to stay in it. As Jamie Lee Curtis so perfectly said: ‘What’s the secret to a long marriage? Don’t leave.”’

Love Languages

As a marriage counselor, Gary Chapman has worked with scores of couples for whom the joy of partnership had faded and faced the looming prospect of separation. These folks did not lack concern for one another, but simply felt as though their emotional love tanks were perpetually dry. Through these encounters, Chapman discovered a fundamental truth: people speak different love languages. If we want our relationships to last, we need to identify – and learn to speak – the language that most resonates with our partners.

five love languagesChapman characterizes these emotional dialects in The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Mastery of a given dialect presumes the sincere intention of building others up and demonstrating commitment to their well-being. It is not to be used to manipulate behavior for personal gain.

Love Language #1 – Words of Affirmation – expresses appreciation for other’s good qualities or behaviors and demonstrates belief in their potential. It provides encouragement to pursue initiatives that we know to be deeply meaning to our partners without pressure to take action. It’s our vote of confidence. When making requests of our partners, we express our needs in a way that affirms our partners’ worth, abilities, and free exercise of choice. We give them the opportunity to do something meaningful for us, and acknowledge their contribution once completed. We also make a point of sharing our heartfelt appreciation for our partners with others. It fosters an aura of positivity that lifts up our partners in the retelling.

Love Language #2 – Quality Time – calls for giving our undivided attention to doing things with our partners that they enjoy. If the time spent focuses on quality conversation, we engage in sympathetic dialog where both parties share experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires in a friendly and open manner. We commit to really listening. If it’s a shared activity, we dive in wholeheartedly knowing that we’re creating a memory bank of shared experiences on which we can both draw in the future.

Love Language #3 – Gifts – provides a tangible expression that our partners know what lights us up and invested the time and energy to get it. It says: “I was thinking about you.” Unless this token of appreciation is wildly mismatched with the giver’s means, it usually isn’t about the amount spent. It’s the thought, intention, and effort that went behind it.

Love Language #4 – Acts of Service – entails doing things your partner would like you to do. These acts must be things that genuinely matter to one’s partner and given freely as an expression of love. They typically require some thought, planning, time, effort, and energy. They may entail examining – and abandoning – stereotypes about the roles that men and women have assumed historically in partnership.

Love Language #5 – Physical Touch – entails holding hands, kissing, embracing, caressing, and sexual intercourse. It may show up as highly charged moments of encounter or casual gestures that manifest in small ways throughout the day. For those for whom this is their love language, to touch their bodies is to touch their hearts. It’s a powerful communicator of love.

If we ignore our partner’s love language, it’s akin to ignoring the needs of a garden. If we don’t weed, water, and fertilize, the garden will die a slow death. Even if our partner’s love language does not come naturally to us, make the choice to learn it anyway. It’s an even more profound expression of love.

How do we identify our love language? The author suggests contemplating answers to the following questions:

  • In what way do your regularly express your love to your spouse? (You may be doing for them what you hope they’ll do for you.)
  • What does your spouse do or fail to do that hurts you most deeply? (You may equate that action – or inaction – as a love barometer.)
  • What have you most often requested of your spouse? (You may be giving your spouse hints about what makes you feel loved.)

Finally, don’t expect your partner to have E.S.P. (If you find it challenging to identify your love language, imagine how challenging it would be for your partner!) Do the work to figure out what fills your emotional tank, and then have a forwarding dialog with your partner about it.

As the Beatles famously sang, “All we need is love.”

Good Friends Promote Good Health

I can’t imagine going through the journey of life without having wonderful friends with whom to share it. I’m fortunate to have people in my life around whom I feel seen, heard, and valued. I am comforted in knowing that we give and receive without judgment, expectations, or scorekeeping. Their love and support is a source of sustenance, and I trust that mine is nurturing for them. I’m especially blessed to have married a man who is as great a friend as he is a life partner.

friends

Good friends make me feel good. But until recently, I didn’t realize the extent to which they are as much a contributor to my health as my happiness.

In The Healing Self, Drs. Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi tell us that the heart is responsive to how we feel physically and emotionally. Being loved and supported by others results in lower arterial blockage. It also affects the immune system. As a case in point, they ask their readers to assign one point to each relationship in which there is direct contact (face-to-face or phone) at least every other week. Those whose scores fall within the 1-3 range are four times more likely to exhibit cold symptoms than those with six or more. Moreover, the number and diversity of relationships exert greater influence on health than their intimacy.

In Mind Over Medicine, Dr. Lissa Rankin emphasizes the importance of having healthy, judgment-free relationships that give us the freedom to be our authentic selves. Love, nurturing, compassion, and feelings of belonging soothe the mind, halt the stress response, induce the relaxation response, and heal the body. They also bring out our best selves while elevating our moods.

Studies show that positive psychological states, such as joy, happiness, and positive energy, as well as characteristics such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism, and a sense of humor result in lower mortality rates and extend longevity.
– Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD

Friendship also exerts an influence at the cellular level. Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel explore this connection in The Telomere Effect. Telomeres are a repeating segment of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of our chromosomes. Much like the plastic or metal aglets placed on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres keep our DNA strands intact. It turns out that good friends are like trusted guardians of these essential genetic building blocks. When they’re around, our telomeres are protected. By contrast, unhealthy relationships are a telomere risk factor. Situations that consistently mix positive qualities with unhelpful or disturbing interactions engender a kind of stress that produces shorter telomeres. When telomeres become critically short, our cells can no longer reproduce.

Finally, I recall a discussion with my father’s neurologist when Dad first exhibited signs of geriatric dementia. The doctor told us that four things were essential to maintaining one’s mental faculties for as long as possible. The first three were not surprising: a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. The fourth was socialization. While sudoku and crossword puzzles are fine diversions, they can’t compete with sustained, positive contact with other human beings. The more we engage with others, the more we exercise our brains and the better we feel.

Fulfilling Our Need for Belonging

As a socially-oriented being, I am most at peace when surrounded by trusted family, friends, and colleagues. I relish being part of a cohesive group and feel rather lost without it. For me, it ranks right up there with food, water, and air as essential to life. So I was naturally drawn to Dr. Brené Brown’s latest book, entitled Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.

Dr. Brown opens the book with a story from her childhood that punctuates the pain we suffer when feeling disconnected from our families and/or peer groups. Most of us could probably mine our histories and narrate similar experiences. Yet she challenges the notion that belonging can proceed from the outside in. Such motivation could result in conformity that thwarts our ability to be authentic. Rather, the table stakes for deep feelings of connection are two-fold: belonging thoroughly to ourselves, and believing thoroughly in ourselves. From that ground of being, we are free to be fully present with others without sacrificing who we are.

togethernessShe defines TRUE BELONGING as “the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

Dr. Brown acknowledges the difficulty in forging connection in an increasingly cynical and divisive world. It calls upon us to listen with an open heart and be more curious than defensive. It speaks to the need for tethering difficult conversations to our shared humanity while allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and uncomfortable in the process. To that end, she serves up a set of guiding principles to illumine the path ahead.

PEOPLE ARE HARD TO HATE CLOSE UP. MOVE IN. It’s not easy being in the presence of someone whose background, experiences, and perspectives are radically different from your own. It’s especially hard when standing on different sides of a debate about which you are especially passionate. Yet it remains vitally important to respect that individual’s human dignity and offer the courtesy of listening with the intent to understand. If we can navigate difference in a way that deepens mutual understanding and instills compassionate, we have the opportunity to transform conflict and create something new and beneficial.

SPEAK THE TRUTH TO B.S.; BE CIVIL. Dr. Brown makes a distinction between lying (defying truth) and bs-ing (dismissing truth). The latter shows up when we feel compelled to weigh in on something we don’t know or understand and/or we lack faith that facts or truth can be discerned. It muddies our capacity to be authentic with ourselves and others. That being said, the call to mount a challenge still comes with the mandate to approach one’s self or others with generosity, empathy, and curiosity. Mutual respect allows us to ask questions and explore differences within the context of a safe space.

HOLD HANDS. WITH STRANGERS. When we show up for one another to share the joys, sorrows, and everything in between, we lose our capacity to deny our human connection. It takes us out of a “we” versus “they” paradigm. It enables us to realize that we are all part of a collective experience that is greater than ourselves. It opens the door to a sense of meaning and positive affect that can help us live longer, more rewarding lives.

STRONG BACK. SOFT FRONT. WILD HEART. A strong back gives us the courage to be ourselves, speak our truth, and do what we believe to be right. The soft front creates the requisite vulnerability to experience love, joy, trust, and intimacy. The wild heart is “the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid, all in the same moment.”

Dr. Brown acknowledges that many of today’s alliances are born of shared contempt for others. She deems them “counterfeit connection.” They reflect a deep spiritual crisis that diminishes all concerned. Though less overtly harmful, the desire to conform to a group’s norm at the expense of one’s inner compass can be equally damaging. Separation from a comfortable situation can prove unnerving, but author Jan Hatmaker offers the following consolation:

“The loneliest steps are the ones between the city walls and the heart of the wilderness, where safety is in the rear view mirror, new territory remains to be seen, and the path out to the unknown seems empty. But put one foot in front of the other enough times, stay the course long enough to actually tunnel into the wilderness, and you’ll be shocked how many people already live out there — thriving, dancing, creating, celebrating, belonging.”