Nephew: I keep hearing that close relationships are important for happiness, but you have never mentioned that.
Uncle: For good reason. It’s not true. We only need the ability to have close relationships.
Nephew: What rubbish. You said we need to feel connected with one another. You called it, ‘the deep need to belong’. When we are in a close relationship we feel connected!
Uncle: Not necessarily. Many people in close relationships are not in close relationships, because the quality of those relationships is poor.
Nephew: Alright, but the experts are talking about healthy close relationships. We need close and healthy relationships to be happy.
Uncle: That’s wrong too. Look, having a close relationship is a wonderful way to satisfy our need to feel connected with one another, but it’s not the only way. We can satisfy that need if we feel connected with the tribe.
Nephew: The tribe?
Uncle: The people around us: the shopkeeper, the neighbour, the person at a bus stop. When we feel connected with the people around us we feel connected with humanity. And that’s enough to satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’. That’s enough for core happiness.
Nephew: But those connections are weak! There is a big difference between being with someone you love and having a converstation with your neighbour!
Uncle: Yet, if you have the ability to have close relationships with the people you meet . . .
Nephew: What do you mean by ‘the ability‘?
Uncle: When you speak with a person and you are actually there with them.
Nephew: What do you mean?
Uncle: You listen carefully to them . . put yourself in their shoes . . . You see them. You hear them.
Nephew: Sounds creepy.
Uncle: It might only be a nod when you walk past them in the street, but for that brief second you are fully acknowledging them. You’re not simply going through the motions while thinking of something else.
Nephew: It still sounds creepy.
Uncle: I’m just saying, if you have the ability to relate with another human being on a healthy level, then those weak connections with the shopkeeper and the person at the bus stop matter. They do the job. We don’t need to have long conversations with the people we meet; often a smile and a nod will suffice. As corny as it sounds, if you feel comfortable wishing a passer-by ‘good morning’, and mean it, there is a good chance you will feel connected with the human race, and satisfy your deep need to belong.
Nephew: That’s absurd.
Uncle: You have that belief because you can’t see the value in those ‘weak’ connections, and because you have been told so often that close relationships are important.
Nephew: Let’s clear something up: when the gurus say we need a close relationship to be happy, they mean we need someone to love, and someone to love us. Close relationships. They’re not talking about some stupid relationship between you and the newsagent.
Uncle: You said we need someone to love?
Nephew: A pet, even.
Uncle: Let’s say you love someone but the other person thinks you’re a creep. How would you feel?
Nephew: Pretty ordinary.
Uncle: Exactly. We only enjoy the love we have for someone when it’s reciprocated. That’s why we have dogs for pets instead of beetles.
Nephew: Well, at least you agree we need to be loved.
Uncle: No, I don’t agree. We don’t need to be loved. Not for core happiness.
Nephew: Look, it’s obvious to everyone we need love to be happy. I know people who would be devastated if they weren’t loved.
Uncle: Yes, some people depend on being loved in the same way others depend upon alcohol. They either don’t feel connected with humanity, or they have fully adopted the belief that they need love to be happy.
Nephew: Have you not been in love? Do you not see the difference between being loved and having a chat with your barber?
Uncle: Yes, love is wonderful! It can give us enormous pleasure, like when a loved one cuddles up to us and looks at us adoringly. Those warm moments can be the icing in our lives, but they do not contribute to core happiness. It only seems as though they do, because it is easy to use those pleasurable moments to gauge our happiness.
Nephew: I think you’re missing a marble.
Uncle: For the first two weeks of a baby’s life it needs three things: its mother’s loving care, its mother’s milk, and colostrum. That’s a fluid in the mother’s milk containing antibodies to protect the baby from disease. It also has other health benefits.
Nephew: I’m sorry. Have I just slipped into a parallel universe and into a different conversation? Excuse me while I get my bearings.
Uncle: For about two years the baby then needs just two things: its mother’s loving care, and her milk.
Nephew: Why are you telling me this?
Uncle: For another decade or so it needs just one thing: a parent’s loving care. Then it doesn’t need those things. It’s ‘cooked’. However, popular culture insists otherwise. We are told constantly that love is important for all of us. We find it in films, songs, religions, happiness books . . .
Nephew: Would there be any danger in getting to the point?
Uncle: I’m simply trying to persuade you to ditch the idea that people need close relationships to be happy. There are people who don’t have someone special in their lives, yet are happy, and there are people who are loved by many, yet are unhappy. It’s not the love which contributes to our core happiness, it’s the connection. And there are other ways to feel connected.
Nephew: What? With the postman?
Uncle: Think if it this way: eating in a five-star restaurant is a wonderful way to satisfy our hunger. Agreed?
Uncle: But it’s not the only way. We can feel replete eating sandwiches. Sandwiches aren’t glamorous, but they’re filling and nutritious. They do the job.
Uncle: In the same way, being loved is a great way to feel connected. It’s a fantastic way. It’s a five-star way. But it’s not the only way. We can satisfy our need for connection by feeling connected with humanity – with the people we meet in day-to-day life. Those connections are not nearly as glamorous or as enjoyable, and they’re certainly not as obvious, but they are just as effective. And they’re enough for core happiness.
Nephew: I can see that, but I still can’t accept that a loving relationship won’t add to our happiness more than a chat with the postman.
Uncle: That’s because we tend to notice the oxytocin highs loving relationships can give us, and not notice the long-term sustaining benefits of feeling connected with humanity.
Nephew: What if an old man loses his spouse and has no-one else left to love him. He can’t be happy! He can’t simply have a chat with his butcher and feel okay again!
Uncle: Of course he will be unhappy; he will be grieving for his wife. But if he feels connected in other ways – with his community, his colleagues, his neighbours . . . after a while his core happiness will return. And that’s what we would want.
Nephew: Yes, I can see that, but . . .
Uncle: We all feel a range of emotions, and it’s quite feasible that someone can be grieving and still consider their life to be a happy one. As I’ve said to you before, a happy person still feels all the dark emotions.
Nephew:You seem to be saying we can feel happy and unhappy at the same time.
Uncle: In a way, yes. That man’s grief will overwhelm his core happiness, but when that grief begins to lift, his core happiness will still be there, waiting for him, provided he is satisfying his deep need to belong.
Nephew: You’re saying all we have to do is say hello to the neighbour and that’s as good as being in a close relationship. You really have lost the plot.
Uncle: Don’t mock the importance of feeling connected with the people you meet. If my ‘hello’ to the neighbour is genuine, it’s a quality connection, and having the ability to have quality connections with the people we meet means we also have the skills to nurture our close relationships.
Nephew: Vomit alert.
Uncle: And, when we do find someone special, that person won’t be filling a hole in our life, because there is no hole. Nor will they be completing us, because we are already complete. That person will simply be one of Life’s wonderful bonuses. And that is a healthy relationship.
Nephew: Red vomit alert.
Uncle: It’s time we diminished the significance of love and viewed it with a healthier perspective. Let’s think less about finding love, and more about strengthening the connection we have with the people we meet.
Nephew: With the tribe?
Nephew: You’re mad. My newly-wed neighbour says she has never been happier.
Uncle: Yes, her brain is flooded with happy hormones. At some stage they will wear off and she will return to her core happiness. Meanwhile, she can enjoy that five-star connection. Good on her.
Nephew: Let me get this right: are you saying that if we have quality connections with the people we meet in day-to-day life, we can be just as happy as a person in a healthy, loving relationship? Is that what you are saying?
Uncle: With all else being equal, yes, that’s what I’m saying. Of course, we won’t be experiencing the oxytocin highs that can occur 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. But it’s easy to confuse the oxytocin highs of pleasure with core happiness.
Nephew: I suppose what you say about love goes for friends as well? We don’t need friends either?
Uncle: Correct. Having friends is a five-star way to feel connected, but it’s not the only way. There are people without friends who are connected to humanity in ways we can’t see. And, there are some people who do have friends, but because their connections are poor, they still feel isolated and unhappy.
Nephew: That I can believe.
Uncle: Yes. Some people talk and talk with their friends, but that doesn’t mean there is a quality connection between them. Often, poor conversation skills lead to disconnection.
Nephew: So you honestly don’t think close relationships are important for core happiness?
Uncle: That’s right. Though when you have close relationships, look after them. Enjoy that five-star connection. 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.
Nephew: Assuming there is a smidgeon of truth in what you say, how do we gain the ability to have close relationships? Do we have to say good morning to every idiot we pass in the street?
Uncle: (Sigh) Let’s talk about that another time.
“. . . 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.”
‘Mr B, doesn’t this indicate that we need meaningful relationships?’
Kathleen Puckett, in the magazine, ‘New Scientist’, 4th September, 2011: