We are often told how important close relationships are for happiness. It’s a common myth and a cruel one. I feel disappointed when I think of how many people mistakenly believe they are destined to remain unhappy because they don’t have close relationships.
We evolved a ‘deep need to belong’ in the tribe because it kept us in the tribe, and that helped us live long enough to pass on our genes. That need to feel connected is still deep within us, and having close relationships with family and or friends is a wonderful, rich way to satisfy that need. However, it’s not the only way. We can also satisfy that need when we feel connected with humanity. When we feel connected with the people around us – the shopkeeper, our neighbour, the staff, the people we meet – that’s enough to satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’. That’s enough for core happiness.
Think of it this way: we can eat in a five-star restaurant or we can eat sandwiches. One may be more enjoyable than the other, but both satisfy our hunger and both provide us with the nutrition we require. In the same way, we can satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’ the five-star way by having close relationships, or we can satisfy it by feeling connected with humanity. Both satisfy our deep need to belong and add to our core happiness.
But one thing is supremely important: we need the ability to communicate well with the people we know and meet.
There are countless people who have close friends and family. They talk and talk, but their poor communication skills mean they don’t fully connect with the people they are talking to. They see things only from their own perspective, so they can’t truly see the other person. Other people become mere shadows in their own life. As a consequence, they go through life feeling isolated. They may try to talk even more, to fill that void, but that won’t alleviate their aloneness. These people in close relationships are not in close relationships, because the quality of those relationships is poor.
On the other hand, there are countless people who have no close friends or family, and they interact infrequently with people, but their ability to communicate with people on a healthy level allows them to feel connected with humanity, and it satisfies their deep need to belong. Why? Because when we have the ability to communicate well with people it means we have the ability to truly see that person; we have the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, understand their concerns, and see where we fit into what they’re saying. We see them. We hear them. We are actually there with them. That willingness to truly be with them connects us to them. And, because they represent everyone who is not us, they represent humanity.
If we have the ability to relate with another human being on a healthy level, then those weak connections we have with the shopkeeper, the neighbour, the person at the bus-stop, matter. They’re not five-star connections but they do the job – they connect us. It might only be a nod when we walk past someone in the street, but if we mean it, then for that brief second we are fully acknowledging them. And that’s what makes the connection.
We might not even like the people around us; we might not like people in general, but that doesn’t preclude us from truly seeing them and feeling connected with them. And it’s that connection which matters. It’s that connection which satisfies our ‘deep need to belong’ and adds to our core happiness.
There are three reasons why it is often claimed we need close relationships to be happy:
(1) Studies show that the people who have family and friends tend to be happier than those who don’t. But those studies don’t take into account the fact that the better our communication skills, the more likely we are to form close friends and family. In other words, it’s the other way around.
(2) We tend to remember the loving moments we have with friends and family, so it’s easy to confuse those pleasures with core happiness. It’s easy to assume that those loving moments are the reason we are happy.
(3) Even if we have poor communication skills we can often still manage to form connections with close family members, and those close family relationships may be the only thing satisfying our deep need to belong. Then it becomes easy to give those relationships the credit for our happiness, especially if we feel isolated in the outside world. The trouble is, family becomes a refuge, not a base from which to launch ourselves into the wide, wide world.
We need to form a connection with humanity, not just close family members, if we are to substantively satisfy our deep need to belong and add to our core happiness.
In short, we don’t need close relationships to be happy, though it’s easy to assume we do need them. In truth, it’s having the ability to form connections with people which is important. Then we can be just as happy as a person in a healthy, loving relationship. We may not be experiencing the oxytocin highs that can occur when people are with loved ones, but those highs have nothing to do with core happiness; they have nothing to do with our day-to-day feeling of wellbeing.
If you do have healthy, close relationships, enjoy them and look after them. Nurture them. Enjoy that five-star connection. It’s a great way to satisfy your deep need to belong. But don’t assume you need them to be happy, because you don’t. You just need the ability to have close relationships. It’s that ability that lets you connect with humanity and satisfy your deep need to belong.
Q. So, if it’s not about having close relationships, but about having quality communication skills, how do we get them?
Much of this book is about just that.
Q. ‘Some people really need to be surrounded by friends. My sister finds toilet cubicles lonely.’
Your sister might like to find another way to get a sense of belonging, to reduce that dependency. Otherwise her neediness might result in her being exploited and easily influenced.
Having quality connections with the people we meet in life allows us to be more discerning about the relationships we do choose to have, and less dependent on them.
Q. ‘Kathleen Puckett wrote in the magazine, ‘New Scientist’, 4th September, 2011:
“. . . During my 23-year stint as an FBI special agent, my colleagues and I looked into what Kaczynski, McVeigh and Rudolph (three mass murderers) had in common. The results were startling. All three were highly intelligent and well educated, with no previous history of criminal violence. But they all shared a profound inability to forge meaningful relationships. . . . (They were) all repeatedly unable to connect socially to the groups whose ideology they shared.”
‘Doesn’t this indicate that we need meaningful relationships?’
No, but it might indicate we need the ability to forge meaningful relationships. If those murderers were unable to forge meaningful relationships there is a good chance they were also unable to connect well with anyone. It sounds like they were unequivocally disconnected from the human race.
Here are some other happiness myths:
– The positive thinking myth. We are often told that we need to look on the bright side if we want to be happy. We need to see the glass half full. But is that helpful advice?
– Myth: we need money to be happy. Surely we need money to be happy, don’t we? Without it we would be in dire straits. So, why is it a myth?
– Myth: to be happy we need to be kind. Countless times we are told that becoming a kind person will make us happier. Why isn’t that true?
– Myth: We are happier with only a few possessions. Will having fewer possessions make us feel happier? How does that work?
– Myth: We need to suffer before we can be happy. Helen Keller once said: ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’ Is she right?
– Myth: We need to reach our full potential. The life coaches offer to help us become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. What’s going on?
– Myth: With wisdom comes happiness. Time and again we see in the movies a strong correlation between wisdom and happiness. Do we need to be wise to be happy?.
– Myth: We need good health to be happy. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, we won’t be happy suffering the black plague. But does good health bring core happiness?
– Myth: We can choose to be happy. This is one of the most pernicious myths going around. Of course we can’t choose to be happy!
– Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed, goes the saying. But does that equal happiness? Of course not.
– Myth: We need to foster compassion to be happy. The Buddhists are particularly keen on the idea of fostering compassion. So, should we foster it?