Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Happiness Series: 7 - To Be Happy: Prioritise Interpersonal Relationships

Happiness and Interpersonal Relationships

Studies show the clearest indicator of your overall life satisfaction and happiness depends on the quality of your interpersonal relationships.

Humans are not solitary animals. That is why isolation, exile and solitary have always been used as a form of punishment. Depriving any social species physical interaction with others of the same species is cruel. Be they pets or people.

People with strong community ties, healthy social networks and a large, involved family who socialize often live longer and happier lives. In contrast, people who feel isolated, people without social connections and family, have a higher rate of depression and suffer much higher rates of certain illnesses. They die younger and report being less happy with their lives.

This is a growing problem with men in particular, who often aren’t taught proper social skills and are discouraged from emotional connection with anyone but their spouse. If their spouse (who should not be their sole source of emotional support to begin with) leaves or dies, they don’t know how to form new bonds, or strengthen existing ones, and become increasingly isolated.

What Are Interpersonal Relationships

Interpersonal relationships are the relationships between yourself and your friends, partner, family, co-workers, church, communities and neighbors. Some will be chosen by birth, location or your job, some will be your choice and maintained at your will.

Ideally, we want as many of our interpersonal relationships to be good as possible. We want them to be friendly and relaxed. They can’t all be equally important or take up equal amounts of time.

However the more positive and sincere your interactions are with others, the healthier and happier you will be.

Why Don’t We Prioritize Other People?

So given how important relationships with others are to our well-being, how come we, as a society don’t put more importance on them?

Traditionally, interpersonal relationships were developed and maintained in two particular institutions. The home and the church. Families tended to live close together—it wasn’t as easy to move to the other side of the state, or world—so people tended to settle in the same town as their parents and cousins. Big family dinners are traditional in many cultures and are still maintained by some minority groups.

The church was the other main source of social interactions. Every Sunday, AT LEAST, everyone in the community would come together and talk. Church was a source, not just of spiritual guidance, but news and gossip. Even now, many people in strong Church communities rarely choose to socialize outside their church groups. And many modern churches aren’t just about the service. They have numerous social events and outings.

However if you aren’t in a church, or your church isn’t as socially focused, that isn’t an option. And if your family is spread all over the country, or world, huge weekend family BBQs aren’t an option.

Which means these two traditional institutions for social interaction are gone. We’re expected to make bonds and develop relationships on our own, despite there not being any real traditions in place for how this is achieved. And with society placing all its focus on romantic relationships above social ones. So much so, that some people fear interacting with others, lest it be seen as a romantic overture. Or worse, people—men in particular—who are so hard-coded to look for romance, they can no longer recognize friendly overtures.

It can be very hard to go against the grain and prioritize non-romantic friendships and relationships in a society that doesn’t value them—even if they are important to everyone’s well being.

We, in general, also tend to fall into the trap of believing the societal norm. Even though we are lonely, we think socializing should come second to our job, perhaps our hunt for a romantic partner, or even time alone to ‘decompress’.

But after working, trying to get a date and decompressing at home, there is no time for our friends. But, we promise ourselves, we’ll make time for that next week.

What Hurts Interpersonal Relationships?

The most harmful thing we can do to our interpersonal relationships is ignore them and not give them any time. Time is the most valuable resource we have. No matter how rich or poor we are, we all have the same number of seconds in a day (though the rich have more choice in how they spend them), so giving time to family and friends is the best way to show them we love and appreciate them.

To that end, stop spending time—your most precious resource—on things and people who you don’t love and who aren’t valuable to you.

We have to put effort into remembering the thing that are important to other people. Their birthdays, celebrating their achievements, being there for them when we know they are facing hard times. Make a note, not just of people’s birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but the dates of their kids birthdays and the dates of their parents deaths. Tell them you are thinking of them. If one of your friends is being published, message them to congratulate them on publication day.

These small things mean a lot to the person you are doing it for.

On the other hand, forgetting birthdays and other major life events and not making time for people is very damaging. You forgetting makes them sad and I am sure that is the last thing you want. So put that extra effort in and you will be glad you did.

What If Its Hard For Me to Form Interpersonal Relationships?

I have been chronically ill—regularly house bound—since 2008. And, usually, do to financial concerns, I have been forced to live out of town, usually an hour or more from most of my friends.

I understand the many, often insurmountable obstacles, that come with making and seeing friends. Money, health, distance, etc. I have been blessed that I have not suffered social anxiety as well, however that can be a huge factor in socialization. I know a lot of my friends struggle with it.

And everyone struggles with making time around other commitments—work, kids and everything in between.

Thank god for the internet. Sometimes people like to tout the internet as the killer of interpersonal relationships—but those people have clearly never been to ill to leave the house. The internet is the only lifeline many of us have to other people. Most of us would probably prefer quality, face to face interactions. But that doesn’t mean online friendships are less valid.

I have been friends with people for over 15 years now, who I talk to almost every day online. My friend Annie and I have been skyping (Or using MSN, back in the day), almost every single day for sixteen years now. Half our lives.

However online relationships can be fleeting and end abruptly. If you want to connect with a community online, consistency is the key. Touch base regularly, ask questions, remember the answers. Support one and other. Praise one and other’s accomplishments.

Sometimes though, online isn’t enough. Regardless of what your struggles are, its worth finding one or two local communities that you can become a regular part of. For me, it is Vision Writers and MCC church. Those are my communities, those are my social groups. I attend them both for the content of the group (writing and LGBT friendly faith) and the people I get to interact with.

It is worth making the time and saving the energy to connect with a community group a 1-4 times a month. Choose one that focuses on something you love—a hobby or cause—and find one with a positive, supportive culture and good, well-intentioned people.

Almost all of my close friends I met at groups like these. I wouldn’t give them up for the world.

How Can I Prioritize Interpersonal Relationships?

Some people are naturally very interested in the people around them. They remember birthdays and facts, they ask questions about people’s lives because they are interested and make them feel good because of their genuine love and fascination they feel toward their friends.

I am not one of those people.

Every year in January, I sit down with my new and old day planner and write in everyone’s birthdays. Because I would forget them all—even my own mother’s—if I didn’t. For those birthdays that are very important (like my mother) I put a reminder at least a week beforehand, so I remember to buy a gift.

On habitica, a daily habit tracking app, one of the daily items for me is ‘contact, compliment or improve someone’s day’. That way, at least once a day, I can use social media to reach out to someone and make them feel better. Hopefully. This also stops me from becoming a complete recluse.

Maybe you think you should just naturally be a good friend. Maybe you think its inauthentic to ‘plan’ to be nice to people like I do. I don’t think my friends mind though. I don’t say to them: ‘you were on my to do list for the day’. I hope they feel genuinely loved and appreciated, even though I might have needed a reminder to be nice.

After all, I chose to be nice to them, not one of the thousand other people I know. So hopefully they realize I love them and they are special to me. If you need a system in place to remind you to make time for people, implement it.

Making people feel loved and appreciated is more important than your ego. And if you are worried about the morality of planning to be nice, you are putting your ego first.

Another really useful tool, is to have a list of priorities in your life. I’ve talked about this in my time series, here (http://traditionalevolution.blogspot.com/2016/09/time-please-sir-can-i-have-some-more.html). Make a list of all the things in your life and be honest about where they rank… and where you want them to rank.

Then, when you are making decisions about what to do next, refer to your priority list. If you have made a vow to yourself you will spend more time with your kids and less on checking your emails at home, then next time your kids ask you to play while you are checking work emails, shut down the computer and GO PLAY WITH THEM.

Moving Forward

Next week we are going to look at another very important relationship. You relationship with the one person you are stuck with, from birth, right through to death. The one person you have to live with, every moment of every day.


Jake, In Summary

I am blessed to be surrounded by the most amazing people. This is, in part, because I don’t compromise on my values. I’m not afraid to lose someone, if I find their values are contrary to my own. In short, none of my friends are bigots or assholes, because I don’t choose to tolerate bigots and assholes.

There are so many people in the world. Seven billion of them. So I know there is always someone better—another awesome friend to be made—just around the corner. If you grew up in the same place, and still know the same people from primary school, this can be harder to believe, and giving up the friends you have a  bit scarier.

My health has made it impossible to be the sort of friend I wish I could be. Though as I get healthier, it is something I am working on. I’m trying to be the sort of friend I always wish I could be. And a big project for me, going forward, is becoming further entrenched in the communities I have chosen to be a part of. Church, writer’s groups, my friends and other communities, online and off.

When I was ill, I was always a bit ashamed to socialize with people. Too aware of my own limits. Now I am improving, but out as trans, being out in public can be a bit of a hassle. But if you have been wanting to meet me for coffee, now is the time to suggest it. Particularly if you are willing to meet me half way, at Chermside.

As much as possible, for the next year and beyond, I will be working on improving friendships and relationships and hopefully, that means seeing more of you.

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