All posts in Relationships

In Pursuit of the Origin of Happiness

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Imagine a moment of elation—a surprise visit by your best friend, a favored underdog’s win or maybe a dip in cool springs on a steamy summer’s day—reviewed in slow motion. What we would see, frame by frame, would be happiness divided, into chunks—people, sounds, things, actions. In our irresistible quest for happiness, what is its genesis?

Research, as it turns out, increasingly tells us happiness is specifically derived from experiences, not possessions (though some would argue that possessions comprise experiences). A recent study, published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information site takes this theory a step further, and posits that mere waiting for experiences is more gratifying than waiting for material possessions:

“…Four studies demonstrate that people derive more happiness from the anticipation of experiential purchases and that waiting for an experience tends to be more pleasurable and exciting than waiting to receive a material good.”

The study monitored how about 100 college students and over 2,200 randomly selected adults felt about material goods and experiences.

Researcher Amit Kumar, quoted in NPR, stated:

“I think one aspect of that has to do with the nature of imagination…If you’re waiting to buy an iPhone, you know exactly how many megapixels the camera on the new phone will have…People often get really creative while planning out a future vacation, he says, and just thinking about all the things they’ll be doing and all fun they’ll be having can boost their mood.”

Is it the anticipation prior to an experience, or everything that happens between the former and the latter and the actual event itself that releases endorphins? Must happiness be in concert with another human being, or can it exist in one’s solitude?

To the second question, our own anecdotal evidence reveals that we can certainly find pleasure being alone. We all know someone, perhaps one’s self, that relishes the idea of retreating to a private cove of isolation—likely temporary, but maybe longer—for a peace that soothes stressors that detract from our overall well-being. Healthy relationships, too, can contribute to happier, better selves.

Last week, in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, a study highlighted the benefits gained from meaningful relationships—specifically, how they help you “thrive.” A press release from Eureka Alert expounded on what this means:

“Researchers Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University and Nancy Collins of University of California at Santa Barbara emphasize the importance of relationships in supporting individuals not only in their ability to cope with stress or adversity, but also in their efforts to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents, and find purpose and meaning in life.”

But not all meaningful relationships are good for you, they note:

“It is not just whether someone provides support, but it is how he or she does it that determines the outcome of that support…being sensitive involves responding to needs in such a way that the support-recipient feels understood, validated, and cared for.”

For all the benefits science confers on our understanding of happiness, nothing affirms its presence as how it feels. When we are happy, we know it. The things that we buy may induce it, experiences with loved ones may trigger it even more, but whatever its origin, our brains are wired to replicate the contentment. Hopefully, with that replication, comes a happiness that is not only pleasurable, but good for us.

To review a popular post on how a meaningful life is not always a happy one, check out this piece, published in January.

Photo Credit: VinothChandar via photopin cc

With the Decline of Romantic Love, the Rise of an Enduring Kind

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Head over heels. Love drunk. Moonstruck. Every generation has a term or phrase for that feeling that’s near impossible to accurately verbalize but undeniably experienced—the feeling of being “in love.” The state is so powerful that those of us who observe friends falling down this rabbit hole of passion take special care to ensure they’ve met their daily needs, almost as if they suffer from an addiction: “What, you haven’t eaten today? Have you slept? Um, why don’t you let me drive.”

As we approach Valentine’s Day, stories abound on the topic of romance—the kind that promulgates romance as a forever-after fantasy. What gets kicked to the curb in the midst of love poems and sweet-nothing sexting is the downside, if that’s what you want to call it, of this impermanent high: romantic love is wonderful AND (spoiler alert for those experiencing it for the first time), it will fade. The good news is that’s okay, because there is more love to come, just a different kind.

I recently spoke to Dr. Jerry Noloboff, a professor at Flagler College who has taught a seminar on “The Psychology of Romantic Love” for the past 15 years. He does equate romantic love to a sort of dependency:

“Romantic love is a state of intoxication with a special person. It is an out-of-control falling feeling, a feeling that you’ve found a part of yourself. But, the thing is, there’s a time limit on it. It is a perishable.”

I imagined Cinderella, in her glass slippers, reverting back to her true self—wearing rags for clothing—and sitting dumbfounded next to her horse, dog and mice pals. This, I realize, is part of the problem—that the Cinderella syndrome runs thick in my blood, that I expect the fantasy to remain, happily ever after.

There is no shortage of theories (from evolutionary psychology, Jungian or psycho-analytic perspectives) on why we fall in love. Dr. Noloboff relayed the myth of a two-headed creature, with four arms and four legs that was split in half due to its threatening power, and that falling in love with someone is reuniting with our lost half.

But though we may fall deeply in love, we may also fall deeply into trouble; not all romance is good for us. One widely-accepted view posits that we experience selective perception, only seeing in our lovers what we want to see (and not the negative) because, for some reason, probably subconsciously, they help us address personal issues buried within our psyche.

Romance rouses the soul but its decline is as natural as the sun setting. Over time, our relationships with our lovers become more utilitarian (“Did you take out the trash?”, “Can you please fold the towels this way, and put them on this shelf?”) and that experience tends to supplant pillow talk.

This does not mean that our lives become bereft of affection. Love evolves from the romantic phase to a more substantial, secure and enduring kind. Dr. Helen Fisher, an authority on evolution, expression and the chemistry of love states in her book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love:

“…the fire in the heart does tend to diminish as partners settle into the daily joys of togetherness, often replaced by another elegant circuit in the brain: attachment—the feelings of serenity and union with one’s beloved.”

Dr. Noloboff, who has been married to his wife for 37 years, highlighted the benefits of transitioning to the more secure phase:

“Our life’s purpose is about personal growth. In a long-term relationship that moves out of the romantic love space, there’s more opportunity to learn about yourself through an extended reality. When we learn to trust the other person, we are more willing to take risks, to be vulnerable. This enables you to grow.”

The focus of this post is not to discourage those currently “in love” from living in the moment or longtime partners from rekindling romance, because such experiences are the honey of life. But for those of us who have settled into security, it’s nice to be reminded that our evolved relationships are still healthy, still loving, without the intoxicating quality of dazzling fireworks.

photo credit: HAMED MASOUMI via photopin cc