Are you focused on romantic love this Valentine's Day? If so, you're missing an opportunity! Building stronger connections with those around us can lead to a happier, healthier, more successful, and easier life. Our relationships help us live and work from our sweet spots by bringing us both strength and ease.
Love and the similar emotions that we experience when we feel connected socially -- like affection, warmth, care, fondness, and compassion -- are a powerful force for a rich and rewarding life. In Love 2.0 author Barbara Fredrickson's words:
Love is our supreme emotion: its presence or absence in our lives influences everything we feel, think, do, and become. It's that recurrent state that ties you in -- your body and brain alike -- to the social fabric, to the bodies and brains of those in your midst. When you experience love ... you not only become better able to see the larger tapestry of life and better able to breathe life into the connections that matter to you, but you set yourself on a pathway that leads to more health, happiness, and wisdom.
Similarly, the longest running study of human development, The Harvard Grant Study, makes it clear that "the most important influence, by far, on a flourishing life is love," as one of the researchers behind the study, George Vaillant, put it in Triumphs of Experience.
So if our happiness and our success are best predicted by the quantity and quality of our relationships with others, the question remains: How can we increase the amount of love we get in our lives? Here are a few of my favorite ways to feel more connected:
1. Talk to strangers -- or at least smile at the barista.
A half dozen recent studies demonstrate the power that a simple positive interaction with a stranger has to make us happier. In one study, researchers randomly assigned volunteers to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train during their morning commute. Pretty much no one thought that they were going to enjoy giving up their morning solitude to make small talk with someone they didn't know and would probably never see again. But guess what? The volunteers enjoyed their commute more than the people in the study who got to read their books and finish their crossword puzzles in silence. What's more, not a single study participant was snubbed. Other research indicates that the strangers being chatted up in public spaces similarly think they won't want to talk, but then end up enjoying themselves.
The takeaway is that often the easiest way for us to connect with others is to slow down just enough to make eye contact with someone, smile, and, if we're feeling brave, start a little conversation. Research shows that even just acknowledging someone else's presence by making eye contact and smiling at them helps people feel more connected.
2. Just send loving thoughts to others.
When Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues want to study what happens when people increase their daily diet of love, they simply ask people to do a loving-kindness meditation once a day. This is a private, quick, no-contact-with-others way to give. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well wishes toward others. Loving-kindness meditation isn't complicated -- it really isn't anything more than using your imagination to send love and well wishes to others.
This stuff is more effective than Prozac for many people. If you are going to do only one thing today to bring more love and connection into your life, I recommend you do this.
Even if you aren't likely to sit in meditation everyday sending good thoughts to yourself and others, you can use metta throughout the day as a tactic to increase your feelings of well-being, compassion, and connection. Perhaps put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or refrigerator door or car dashboard -- wherever you tend to be most exhausted or overwhelmed or isolated -- to remind you to pause and cultivate a loving thought or two.
3. Master the most important relationship skill in the history of the universe.
Perhaps the most useful skill we can master for building strong connections with others is the ability to deliver an effective apology. When a relationship starts to break down, the best repair, bar none, is almost always an apology.
Think about it: if a relationship is dented or sputtering, someone probably made a mistake. Perhaps it was a benign comment (a well-meaning but poorly understood suggestion) or maybe it was more toxic (you got caught in a lie, or didn't follow-through on a commitment).
People make mistakes in relationships all. the. time. Not just bad people, or weak people. All people. Our mistakes are what make us human. And even when we don't think that we've made a mistake, other people will often find errors in our ways. We human beings are walking offenders.
So if we've done something that offends someone else -- whether or not we feel we are to blame -- we apologize?
I believe that it almost always serves our highest good to apologize if we've hurt or offended someone else -- even if we think the offended person's anger is unjustified, or if we have a perfectly good excuse for what happened. Or if our intentions were all good.
But all apologies aren't created equal, of course. (All parents have watched children spit out a forced "SORRY!" and known it was worthless.) So what makes a good apology? After studying that question extensively, Aaron Lazare developed perhaps the most robust criteria to date for effective apologies. Drawing on Dr. Lazare's work, I've created this three-step method for making a good apology.
This post is a little tidbit from my latest eCourse: The Science of Finding Your Flow: How to Create Happiness and Maximize Productivity (launching later this spring). If you're invested in bringing more ease and flow into your life this year, you will love this eCourse! And if you pre-order this eCourse now, you'll get a FREE hardcover copy of my book The Sweet Spot and $50 off! This is a steal, friends. Plus, if you want to, you'll get to help me test out the content before the launch. Click here to pre-order The Science of Finding Flow eCourse.
Image by Benjamin Lehman