When my oldest daughter Julia was 6 years old, she once asked my then boyfriend what the book he was reading was about. “It’s about a man trying to figure out what the meaning of life is” he tried to explain. “Oh”. my daughter answered, in a tone revealing she found the subject highly uninteresting. “So, what do you think is the meaning of life?” my boyfriend asked her. “Att leva och ha det bra” * (literally translated: To live and to have it good, which sort of means “to live happily” ) she answered in an obvious tone, without hesitating for one second.
At the time, I think both the boyfriend and I laughed a bit about the simplicity in her answer, but as time passes, I’ve more and more started to think that she totally nailed it.
What else could be the meaning, really? (OK, if you’re all into evolution theory you´d say it’s to pass on your genes) Still, when I look around, most people – myself included- seems to struggle in this area -well happiness, I mean, not the passing on genes-part.
How to be happy
When asked what is most important in order to live a happy, healthy life, many people, especially if they are younger, will say things like “to have a lot of money”, “To be successful in your career” “To become famous” . Some more enlightened people (I used to be one of them) might answer “To follow your dreams” or something like that. According to the world´s longest study on happiness, the answer has absolutely nothing to do with money, success or fame. So what should you aim for instead?
The happiness study I’m talking about is a study that researchers at Harvard have been running for the amazing time span of more than 60 years, following the same persons from when they were in their twenties until today when the ones still alive are in their eighties .
After comparing all different factors the researchers could think about – health, income, social status, living standard etc. etc. – they found that there was one single factor that stood out above all the others, as in deciding how much “happiness” the participants in the study reported:
How satisfied they were with the quality of their close relationships.
And what is pretty interesting: The level of satisfaction the study participants reported with their relationships in their fifties was closely correlated to how healthy they were in their seventies and eighties!
Why good relationships are so hard to get
When my daughter formulated her words of wisdom I was on a sick leave with burnout-syndrome, a condition I had ended up with since what was so obvious to my 6-year old, was totally beyond grasp for me.
I was constantly in stress, trying to live up to all inner and outer expectations, working hard to prove I was “GOOD” (or, too be honest, “perfect”…). I wanted to be good in my profession, I wanted to be a good friend and parent and daughter and neighbour. And of course a good woman and lover. Unfortunately, I totally had left the control of what “Good” really meant to everybody else but me to decide. Or rather, to what I THOUGHT everybody else thought.
The rules I was living by said that what other person thought or needed was almost always more important than what I wanted or needed. There were a few words that were totally forbidden in my vocabulary :”I can’t” , “I don’t want to” and, more generally “No”.
In a way,though, this was my way of trying to “have it good”- since my idea of whether or not my life was good depended on what other people thought about me – if they thought I was kind, attractive, responsible, successful…Most of all, I had a longing to be “of use” – to have a purpose.
Today, I think that this is where so many of us get lost. This longing to belong and to have a purpose, I’m sure, is very important. Also most of us want our life to have a greater meaning, we are not satisfied just living for our own pleasure. And we all need to feel that we belong, that we are not alone.
The problem is just that we have misunderstood the meaning of “belonging”, “being of use” and “having a purpose”. We get too eager to please others, and on the way we loose ourselves.
So what does it mean to have good quality relationships?
According to the Harvard study, it didn´t mean that there never was a conflict. Some of the participants lived in relationships where they quarrelled a lot! But they knew that the other person was there for them, they knew they had someone to go to when they needed help and support.
Now, mind you, this doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the other person.
All those years when I was stressed out, struggled trying to “live up to other people’s expectations” – I certainly had my share of toxic relationships. But I also had some really good people around.
The problem was just, I THOUGHT I had to be a certain way in order to get approved. This “way” meant being kind, helpful and “of use” for other people, but it didn’t include me having or expressing any needs. I didn’t think I was allowed to say what I wanted or needed. Also I was so busy trying to figure out what the other person needed, I didn’t even bother to ask them! The result was that I would never really feel relaxed with anyone.
Are you wondering why I’d often prefer to spend time on my own?!!
As I slowly got better at being more true to myself – and more honest around others – I was amazed to find that most people were totally fine with this! In fact most of my relations improved dramatically!
And the ones who weren`t? Well, if someone doesn’t appreciate who you REALLY are, and supports you in doing what you REALLY want, are they really the kind of person you want to hang out with?
Do you have to be in a romantic relationship to be happy?
The Harvard study seemed to conclude that people who felt they had a good quality romantic relationship was the ones who were happiest (and in the later part of life healthiest) but this study mainly focused on men, and other studies have showed that how well you handle challenges in life have to do with whether or not you have a good close relationship to another WOMAN.
It’s also known that in a marriage, after a divorce, or if the woman dies first, the man is likely to either re-marry very fast or go into a negative loop of declining health and depression, while a woman is very likely to – after the initial grief phase – blossom without a new romantic partner..
The thing seems to be, many women invest TOO MUCH in their romantic relationships, leaving too little time to pursue other interests and friendships.
Still, in my experience, even if you have great friends and a good family network, a good romantic relationship simply makes life nicer. The challenge, especially as a woman, is just not to get too content in the twosome, and make sure you also nurture other relationships. After all, you never know what waits around the corner. If you should loose your partner, for one reason or the other, it’s pretty great to have a shoulder to cry on… It also takes away some of the pressure from our partners when they don’t have to be EVERYTHING to us 🙂
And what about having a purpose?
According to Maslow´s famous “hierarchy of needs” the need for “Self-actualization” whatever that means for you, places itself nicely on top of the pyramid, after our more basic needs of food, shelter, security, love and belonging have been satisfied. Now today, most people realize that it isn’t quite that simple.
Depending on your personal beliefs, your list of priorities can look very different. Just think about the people who choose to live as monks!
For me, in that time, my longing to have a purpose was a longing for belonging in disguise. If I could only be good and kind and needed enough, for sure that must prove to people that I was worthy of love?
My low sense of self worth was efficiently getting in the way for me to feel worthy of unconditional love. In the same way, we can build other traps for ourself: If I only got rich, famous, successful, thin etc. etc. I would be worthy of love – and so I would be happy..
I think the Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg got it pretty right in his play Doctor Glas from 1905, where he wrote:
“One wants to be loved, in lack thereof admired, in lack thereof feared, in lack thereof loathed and despised. One wants to instill some sort of emotion in people. The soul trembles before emptiness and desires contact at any price.”
The conclusion? It´s really great if you can find a way to contribute to this world also in other ways than simply being the happiest, most loving and fulfilled version of yourself – but never make the mistake to believe that recognition such as success, fame or a full bank account will compensate for the lack of high quality close relationships and love in your life – whether from a romantic partner, good friends and/or family.
Could you use better realtionships?
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