I don’t really think that anyone, unless they are sociopaths or competing on reality television, goes into a relationship expecting or wanting it to fail.
I think we look at others with hope, with intrigue. We enter friendships, parenting, romantic love, or any relationship, with a kind of prayer in our heart:
Let this relationship last.
Let this relationship be true.
Let this relationship be good.
And yet day after day, countless friendships are ruined, marriages end, and connections crumble.
And this is detrimental to our well-being, to our very lives.
One of the longest studies on adult life ever conducted, The Harvard Study of Adult Development, tracked teenagers into their old age for over 75 years, in an attempt to discover what made people live longer, happier lives.
Want to know the results?
“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period…The good life is built with good relationships.” — Dr. Robert Waldinger
If Dr. Robert Waldinger is right, if happy relationships really do determine our quality and length of life, we need to know all the key things to do to cultivate really good relationships!
Our longevity and happiness might depend on it…
So I decided to go on a quest to discover what makes relationships really work. I searched the internet and pulled books off of our shelves at home. I contacted the people who had the longest and most successful relationships I knew.
These are the 11 tips I learned…
11. Be Happy First
One year when I was a kid all I asked for one Christmas was a cool new interactive toy. This toy was going to solve all my problems. And I would be happy, so happy, I promised my parents…
Fastforward to two months after Christmas as I held my father’s hammer in my hands. I moved slowly toward my Furby, who had started to malfunction so badly that he would wake me up in the middle of the night randomly speaking in his Furbian language things like,
“Kah may-may u-nye.” (I cannot believe I remember that)
My Furby had started to give me such bad nightmares and I was too embarrassed to ask my parents to turn him off since I had told them how happy I would be with him, so I decided Furby had to die.
I smashed my Furby on the head over and over and heard his phrases start to sound less like an alien language and more like a garbage disposal.
The Furby chatter got worse. It didn’t stop.
Furby was now gurgling sounds in jumbled and frequent intervals, as if begging for his own life.
I panicked. I ran downstairs and stuffed my disfigured Furby into the cupboard downstairs.
My parents discovered the malfunctioning Furby the next day at breakfast and had a lot of questions for me. Luckily they didn’t get too upset…
I think they realized what I hadn’t yet.
We often look at a material item in life and believe it will bring us joy. But like a child with a faddish toy, we outgrow it all too often.
In the long run, things can never really make us happy. Only we really can make ourselves happy.
And I believe this applies to our relationships as well.
Sometimes we enter a relationship and look at it as a thing. We think, “finally! This person will make me happy! This thing will fix my problems.”
We Furby it.
When we realize we aren’t being fulfilled by the other person in the way we expected, we subconsciously take a hammer to our relationship and start to smash it away.
If we want our relationships to be as successful as possible, we must come to them already filled, already happy to begin with.
“Most people enter a relationship in order to get something: they’re trying to find someone who’s going to make them feel good. In reality, the only way a relationship will last is if you see your relationship as a place that you go to give, and not a place that you go to take. ” ― Tony Robbins
10. Create Rituals Together
Humans come together through shared practices. It’s a well-known fact. And though the word ritual tends to conjure up images of witches and cults, people actually use rituals every day to connect and reinforce their well-being.
Joseph Campbell says that rituals provide us the template of how to live socially. Anyone who has gone to jail or ended up in the news for a negative reason has violated one of societies’ rituals.
In a relationship, you create a new world. You fashion a new template to live by, together. Having healthy rituals and routines, like exercising or eating dinner together, is absolutely essential in helping to reinforce relationships in a positive way.
Tony Robbins says that our environment reinforces our identity. At his seminars he often has people participate in a fire walk, where people trek across hot coals. He says this ritual helps them to create a new frame of mind, one where they feel like they can do anything.
Though I don’t recommend walking across a bed of fire at your home, I do recommend creating a nurturing environment filled with positive rituals that bring joy and reinforce love.
My husband and I do this dorky thing every time he comes home. It’s so small. But it has a huge impact on us.
When one of us enters the door, we run around singing,
“My hunny’s home! My hunny’s home! My hunny’s really home!”
It sounds dumb, and it is, but we love it. I don’t even remember when or how or why the ritual really got created in the first place, but I know this small song and dance really adds a rich symphony to our everyday lives.
My parents did the same thing for me growing up too.
Every time one of our family memers entered the house they had a special song sung, just for them.
“Her name is Mandy.
She likes Candy.
And she eats it
Whenever she can.”
(And it was true by the way.)
But why do these ritualistic songs spark something in my heart? Why do these weird words give me the world?
It’s the same reason I look forward to certain holidays every year. I can’t wait for the traditions, the rituals. The things that come only at a certain time, in a very special way, that I get to savor with the people I love so very much.
“By participating in a ritual…your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life.” ― Joseph Campbell
9. Smile. Often.
“Just as you don’t need any reason to be happy, you don’t need any particular circumstance to decide to smile.” — Alexandra Stoddard, Happiness For Two
In her book, Happiness For Two, Alexandra Stoddard explains that a simple smile is a powerful gift that we can start every interaction with. If we give a smile without needing one in return, we are more open and ready to connect with others.
“There are no words to express just how much we mean to each other. A smile is nonverbal communication that speaks volumes.” — Alexandra Stoddard, Happiness For Two
Like the orphans in Annie sing,
“You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”
Make smiling a permanent part of what you bring to the world and your relationships. It invites the world, and others, in.
8. Put Your Cell Phones Away
When Jonathan Chew and I met one of our idols, Evan Carmichael, we were shocked to learn he didn’t own a cell phone.
“How do you live?”
“What if there was an emergency and someone couldn’t get ahold of you?”
(We asked, with dropped jaws.)
Evan smiled and said something to the effect of,
“First off, if someone really needed to get ahold of you they will find a way. But bad things really don’t happen as often as we think they might. And you know, it’s funny. My wife didn’t like me having a cell phone at first but now she loves it because when I’m with her, she gets my full attention entirely.”
I don’t think Jonathan Chew and I could ever live without our phones, so I think the better principle for us here would just be to turn them off when we’re together.
But I think it’s an amazing principle:
The world can wait. A more important world is in front of you instead.
“To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.” — Bill Wilson
Turn off your distractions for everyone important to you when trying to nurture your relationships (and I really mean everyone, be they babies, coworkers, friends, or your lover.)
Give people the world by giving them you. Connect with people entirely and completely. Be as present as possible.
Silence the temptations and distractions. Your happy relationships will speak volumes for it.
7. Choose Your Words Mindfully
My husband Jonathan Chew is a proud Trekkie. And you can really tell it by the stickers/words on his car. Whenever I drive his car I feel an extra sense of pressure…
The Trekkie pressure…
I know I have to drive with less road rage and more kindness because I’m representing a group of people who believe in an optimistic future, who believe in the goodness of humanity.
Sometimes in the heat of the moment and amid the L.A. traffic, I forget this and think,
“Noo! I hope that person doesn’t think all Trekkies are bad at changing lanes!”
It’s a work in progress.
But I think that reminders like this are good for us. It’s always important to remember we belong to something larger than ourselves…
As humans, we are joined together by our humanity. We really have the ability for greatness because of this.
“When you speak, allow the insight of our collective humanity to speak through you. When you walk, don’t walk for yourself alone; walk for your ancestors and your community. When you breathe, allow the larger world to breathe for you.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Communicating
We represent humanity with every word we speak. We should talk in a compassionate and nourishing way, allowing humanity to speak through us, not in a way where we regret what we said the next day…
“What we consume with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, and our bodies is also food…Are we consuming and creating the kind of food that is healthy for us and helps us grow?” — Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Communicating
In The Art of Communicating, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to use and cultivate nourishing speech, to listen and communicate with mindfulness.
Some of his suggestions to do this include:
Create a foundation of compassion with mindful listening (no interruptions, focus on the other person’s feelings, just breathe if you need to.)
Show you care. Use and create mantras that establish love (ex: “I am here for you”) or even ones that help you maintain a good perspective on a situation (ex: “I understand” “You are partially right”)
Always establish authenticity and trust by telling the truth. It hurts more to be dishonest in the long run.
Communicate objectively, distancing yourself from any rising emotions that could possibly be harmful or toxic.
Remember your humanity.
Mindful communication is fundamental to any relationship. It has the ability to nourish or destroy not only others, but ourselves as well!
Tony Robbins often suggests to look into the mirror once a day and tell yourself these powerful words,
“I love you.”
It’s really weird at first. But it really does put you in a great place mentally.
I’ve even started texting myself words of affirmation like,
“Hey! You made a really yummy dinner last night!”
(Perhaps yet another dorky ritual, but a delightful mood-booster as well.)
How often do we really give enriching nourishing speech to not only others, but to ourselves as well?
Feed your soul. Choose your words mindfully. For everyone.
6. Make Eye Contact
Have you ever been at a big gathering and caught your friend or lover’s eye? They smile. You smile. You feel a warmth wash over you. The whole world feels as if it’s smiling too…
There’s a reason people claim, “the eyes are the windows to the soul.”
When that split second of eye contact occurs, it’s as if two become one, in just a brief but beautiful moment. You understand what each other is saying, even without the use of words.
“When we come to understand the powerful gift of eye contact, we can improve our nonverbal communication and feel intimately connected in silence.” — Alexandra Stoddard, Happiness For Two
According to Frans De Waal even Chimpanzees make eye contact with others, especially after fights, to assess the mood in their relationships.
Positive and encouraging eye contact can fill us up and allow us to connect in a way words can’t.
Make eye contact…
It only takes one second out of life to do so…
5. Experience New Things Together
“There is no better use of your financial resources than to spend them on meaningful experiences with other people.” — Tom Rath, Are You Fully Charged?
When deciding between the two, always buy experiences over things. (Trust me, your garage will thank you for it later.)
Not only are experiences a great way to connect with others, they are one of the best ways to use time and money as well.
Not only are the memories of the experiences of great value, but the anticipation of the time leading up to their fruition also ups our happiness quotient. These experiences help strengthen our social relationships with the people we spend time with, and as time goes by the experience becomes more and memorable.” — Nina Kler
“From a financial standpoint, many things we buy depreciate the minute we buy them. The most common example is a new car: it loses 15 to 20 percent of its value the minute you drive it out of the lot.
Experiences, on the other hand, are priceless — a fishing outing with one of your children, a concert with your best friend, a road trip, hiking the Grand Canyon, a family vacation. Memories don’t have to cost a fortune, but they can last a lifetime.” — Phil Zeltzman
You don’t even need the trinkets and the expensive mementos that will just clutter up your space. Fill up your mind instead…
In her Ted Talk, What You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimers, Lisa Genova explains how new experiences help us to both strengthen our bonds with others and fight off diseases like Alzheimers as well.
“Every time we learn something new, we are creating and strengthening new neural connections, new synapses. Ideally, we want these new things to be as rich in meaning as possible, recruiting sight and sound and associations and emotion. So this really doesn’t mean doing crossword puzzles. You don’t want to simply retrieve information you’ve already learned, because this is like traveling down old, familiar streets,cruising neighborhoods you already know. You want to pave new neural roads.”
I think there’s no better way to build better relationships and a healthy brain than experiencing new things with someone you care about.
“All attempts to find lasting happiness in material objects will fail. We live from the inside out.” — Alexandra Stoddard, Happiness For Two
We live from the inside out. We should spend our money and our time on things that will help us connect to the people we love in new and exciting ways. It’s good for us. It’s good for them.
4. Celebrate Each Other’s Achievements
“Kindness in friendships takes the form of providing praise after successes.” ― Ty Tashiro, The Science of Happily Ever After
Have you ever told someone some good news only to be met with a reaction that was not as enthusiastic as you had hoped for?
Maybe the person was jealous. Or tired. Or didn’t think your news was that big of a deal. Maybe aliens took over their body. Maybe they’re dead inside. It’s hard to say!
All sorts of panic can ensue…
I think as humans we have a deep internal need to celebrate our achievements with others because it helps reinforce connection and love. It invigorates us. We are social creatures and thus we need social reassurance.
Why are birthdays usually so important? Or anniversaries? Or holidays?
They’re reminders of love, of significance.
“Important dates are just that: important. When we remember and commemorate them, we’re sharing happiness for two.” — Alexandra Stoddard, Happiness For Two
Like the song basically begs,
“Celebrate good times, Come on!”
After all, celebrations are signs of happiness, signs of good relationships, signs of life…
“Celebrations are not just to provide pleasure. They help us to honor each other, to recognize that, in truth, we should celebrate life together every day.” — Alexandra Stoddard, Happiness For Two
3. Look At “Birds”
Do you ever remember being a kid, pleading to your parents, crying out, “look at me!” as you did something completely and utterly unremarkable.
It wasn’t the unremarkable thing you wanted them to see, it was you.
We still tend to do this as adults as well (we’ve just learned to do it with a little more tact now.)
There was interesting study done by Psychologist John Gottman where hundreds of newly-wed couples were invited to a bed and breakfast retreat. Emily Esfahani Smith wrote more about Gottman’s pivotal discovery during this study in her article, Masters of Love:
“Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.” — Emily Esfahani Smith, Masters of Love
As humans, we are constantly calling to one another in subtle ways. It’s not just about looking at a bird, it’s about the connection.
We subconsciously and consciously try and test each other in relationships to see if the other is paying attention.
And neglecting a seemingly small moment can have huge consequences.
“Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.” — J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Want good relationships?
Look at the “birds” the other person is pointing out.
2. Stimulate the Mind to Stimulate the Heart
“When you both value being lifelong students, always reaching out to grow more knowledge about the world and how to live more successfully in it, you become more interested and therefore more interesting to each other.” — Alexandra Stoddard, Happiness For Two
As a human you are meant to grow. As a human in a relationship, you are meant to grow together.
So learn. Always seek out knowledge and new ideas. It makes you more interesting and makes others more interested in you.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
1. Make Sure Positives Outweigh Negatives
In his book Are You Fully Charged: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, Tom Wrath tells us that one good action does not outweigh one bad action.
We need at least 4 positive interactions for every one negative thing that occurs to simply feel just neutral again.
Really, we should be aiming to create 6+ positive experiences for every negative occurrence so that we can tip the scales again in our favor.
“Of course motivation is not permanent. But then, neither is bathing; but it is something you should do on a regular basis.”
— Zig Ziglar, Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World
It may sound like a lot of positive to have to put out there… But that’s because we have a lot of negativity already hard-wired into our brain, thanks to the negativity bias we get from our ancestors who depended on it to, you know, not get eaten by lions and stuff.
So next time you’re tempted to get in a fight with a friend or lover, remember how much work you’ll have to do to get back to neutrality again. Is it worth it?
Negativity happens around us daily and constantly, but we can push back with more kindness, affection, love, encouragement, and positive responses which are all anecdotes for doubt, criticism, and anger, especially when given in generous quantities.
So give abundantly. Fight off the negativity with extra positivity. Motivate yourself to find it.
Because as Dr. Robert Waldinger suggests, your long life and well-being may depend on it…
Call To Action
If there is someone out there right now, that you know would benefit as you bring one of these 11 things to them, give it to today, so that tomorrow can be strong, bright, and long-lasting for the two of you.
“You were created to make someone’s life better. Somebody needs what you have — your smile, love, and encouragement.” — unknown