Peter’s couple therapy blog

Health, happiness & relationships

With the exception of a man’s closeness to his father, childhood environment did not predict stable marriage, and even where a warm paternal relationship was lacking, good marriages could be made —eventually. Indeed, marriage seemed to be a means for making good on a poor childhood. After almost fifty years of following disadvantaged youths, psychologist Emmy Werner noted that ‘the most salient turning points . . . for most of these troubled individuals were meeting a caring friend and marrying an accepting spouse.

The Grant Study at Harvard has followed two groups of men for almost seventy years, tracking physical and emotional health, opinions and attitudes, successes and failures, all in the hope of understanding what makes us happy.

The study itself has generated some remarkable findings, such as the massive impact of relationships, the fading long-term effects of childhood experiences, and the role of defences in managing emotional well-being. It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of the men’s lives. A warm childhood proved a much stronger predictor of many positive aspects of a man’s later life, including his overall contentment in his late seventies, than either his parent’s social class or his own income.

Abundant familial love, when coupled with an emphasis on autonomy and initiative, actually produced the most stoical and independent men. Such men had learned to be comfortable with their feelings, and “that they could put their trust in life, which gave them courage to go out and face it.” In contrast, the men from the worst childhoods turned out to be the most dependent, and struggled with taking initiative.

A survey of 2 million people across 80 countries found a ‘dip in mental health and happiness (that) comes on slowly, not suddenly in a single year. Only in their 50’s do most people emerge from the low period (of the preceding decade).’

The unhappiest times in the US sample peaked for women in their 40’s and men in their 50’s. For the British sample, the unhappiest years peaked, on average, at 44 in both genders.

This consistent finding throughout the world points to periods of unhappiness in everyone’s life. It is a process in all peoples whether single or married; queer or straight; childless or not; in poor and good health, and in all socioeconomic levels, cultures and creeds.

Believing happiness is the natural state of all human beings can cause more unhappiness.

Happiness does not require a good job, money, health nor coming from a “good family”. Many of us postpone life until each of those is in place. Sensible hygiene and potable water; feeling useful in a social network; aware of the food/mood diet/health exercise connections, and even breathing through nose rather than mouth, are a few simple examples that enhance health and happiness without postponing anything until tomorrow.

I like Russ Harris’ ‘The Happiness Trap’ web site. It has a lot of free resources to get you started. He also has written a useful book for couples: ‘ACT with Love’.

Martin Seligman’s site ‘Authentic Happiness’ has positive mental health self-assessments. I like the brief character strengths assessment for a starter.

Ultimately, a secure attachment is the key to health and happiness. If you add the personality traits of optimism, sociability, conscientiousness, resilience and low neuroticism you have a recipe for a long, meaningful and fulfilling life.

Emotional attachment is a primary protection against feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness. MacFarlane & Van der Kolk

Attachment is a well spring of ease and joy at all ages and stages. Insecure or unstable attachment is a source of misery. No attachment is not a viable option for brain development or for survival.

Secure attachment soothes and comforts; offers a safe haven; promotes trust in self and other and openness to new experiences, risk taking and experimenting. It promotes affect regulation and integration (Sue Johnson 1988).

The Buddha’s teaching was not detachment but rather to dwell, to reside, to embed and be embodied in the world. That is the essence of compassion, an unbroken connection with Life not its disavowal.

Compassion can only occur between equals.

He recommended residing in that soft spot of a poignant enormity in life, which touches us all. The Buddha was an agnostic, a doubting Thomas. He suggested that you try this way of life for yourself and see if it is as true for you as it was for him.

And then there is love.

“Happiness is love. Full stop.” It’s really a conclusion (of the Grant Study) all of us knew all along, but it helps to be reminded of it, and to see that it is backed up not only by intuition, but by nearly 80 years of research.

However, love is a much misunderstood and misused term. Being both noun and verb it is a set of things and a set of actions. Love is not a single feeling but an emotion built from two or more feelings. Anything vital to us creates more than one feeling, and we also have feelings about our feelings (and thoughts about our feelings).

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