What are the most important relationships to cherish in life? How can you improve these specific relationships?
In The Good Life, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz discuss their strategies for improving specific types of relationships. We’ll discuss the unique characteristics and challenges of your relationships with your partner, your family, your colleagues, and your friends—and how to improve each type.
Continue reading for tips on how to boost the relationships you want to thrive.
#1: Your Relationship With Your Partner
The first of the important relationships that Waldinger and Schulz address are romantic attachments. They assert that a positive and long-lasting relationship with a romantic partner can provide comfort to your life. Psychologists have found that adults who feel like they have a “secure base”—someone they can rely on for comfort and support no matter what—recover faster from stressful situations.
Waldinger and Schulz name several techniques for improving the important relationship with your partner. First, pay attention to and thank your partner for the little things they do. Doing so will improve your impression of them (because you’re paying attention to their positive qualities) and your partner’s mood (because they’ll be happy you noticed). Second, try new things together. You’ll see your partner in a new light, which will increase your admiration of them.
Third, practice sharing all parts of yourself with your partner—even those you’re afraid to. Waldinger and Schulz explain that in times of conflict, you may be tempted to hide your true feelings from your partner in an effort to protect yourself or to stop fighting. However, the authors assert that it’s better to lean into your vulnerability. When both partners share their true selves with each other, their connection deepens.
#2: Your Relationships With Your Family
Waldinger and Schulz assert that having a positive relationship with the family you grew up in heavily impacts your life. After all, you’ve known these people your whole life, so they provide a type of support that you cannot find anywhere else.
However, Waldinger and Schulz clarify that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you had a happy childhood. The authors acknowledge that our childhoods dramatically impact our ability to maintain healthy relationships—primarily because, as kids, we learn from our families how to handle our emotions. But, as the authors point out, we can also unlearn the negative patterns our families taught us and replace them with healthier patterns.
According to Waldinger and Schulz, a key step to unlearning these patterns is to be open to the possibility that people will surprise you. In both familial and non-familial relationships, doing this frees you up to perceive when people aren’t behaving as badly as you expect, which can help break down damaging assumptions you learned as a child. This openness is particularly helpful in familial relationships because it encourages us to notice and acknowledge when our family members have undergone personal growth—something most of us struggle to recognize in people we’ve known our whole lives.
For example, say your mother constantly criticized your dad when you were a kid. So as an adult, you develop a negative pattern of regularly criticizing the people you love. One day when you’re grown, you notice that your father bought the wrong brand of milk. But instead of loudly criticizing him, your mother simply puts the milk away. You only noticed this small change because you were open to the possibility that your parents could change. Not only do you reconsider your belief that your mother constantly criticizes her family, but you also reconsider how you behave when your husband messes up—and the next time he does, you remember your mom’s gesture and choose not to criticize him.
Another key to improving your relationships, according to Waldinger and Schulz, is to have regularly set family time to ensure that you continue to connect with each other despite how busy life gets. If you’re all living in the same place, the authors recommend instituting regular family meals. If not, having a regular video meeting can help maintain some connection, too.
#3: Your Relationships With Your Coworkers
Waldinger and Schulz argue that having supportive relationships with your coworkers can make a big positive difference in your life. The authors note that most people divide their lives into work and non-work time. But in reality, your happiness at work has a big impact on the rest of your life.
Since people spend so much time at work, having social relationships with colleagues can prevent loneliness—which, as we saw previously, can damage our health. If a work occurrence negatively affects your mood, that bad mood often remains even when you return home—and so work events can damage your familial relationships.
So Waldinger and Schulz suggest that you change your perspective on your work relationships. Instead of avoiding possible connections with your coworkers, think about how you could develop relationships with or deepen existing relationships with your colleagues. Then, put those ideas into practice. For example, if you love books and notice that a colleague you don’t know well is always reading, strike up a conversation about books with that person.
Waldinger and Schulz acknowledge that sometimes, this is easier said than done. You may struggle to befriend coworkers if you work remotely. Alternatively, you may be reluctant to befriend people at a different managerial level because you don’t want that hierarchy to potentially damage your personal relationship. However, the authors argue that developing relationships anyway will improve both your happiness and the quality of your work—especially in the latter case, because the only way to develop mentor/mentee relationships is to connect across the corporate hierarchy.
But what if it’s too late to develop relationships with your coworkers? If you’ve retired, Waldinger and Schulz propose that you seek out regular social connections and something that brings you fulfillment. The authors explain that many people find these connections and fulfillment at their jobs—so when they retire and lose both, they struggle to adjust. Having a replacement source of both will help you maintain your happiness. For example, getting a volunteer position that utilizes your professional skills could help you feel fulfilled and bring more people into your life.
#4: Your Relationships With Your Friends
Waldinger and Schulz say that many of us don’t prioritize our friendships. They point out that while children value their friends, adults often neglect their friends in favor of more immediate concerns such as their family or their work. This is especially true if the relationship developed when both people were in the same phase of life but one has since moved on; for example, if one college friend is still struggling in her career while the other is financially successful.
However, Waldinger and Schulz argue that neglecting our friendships is a mistake, as they’re more important than most of us think. The authors point to several studies indicating that close friendships have a significant impact on both our physical and mental health. Notably, your friends improve how well you handle stressful events: Friends make difficult situations seem better than they are, and they reduce both how long and how strongly we feel these events’ effects.
Waldinger and Schulz add that it’s not just our close friendships, or “strong ties,” that positively affect our lives. A growing body of research indicates that “weak ties”—infrequent and low-intensity relationships—also provide unexpected benefits. When you cultivate connections with people you don’t know well, such as the friend of your friend or the cashier at the corner store you frequent, you gain access to broader networks that you might not have access to otherwise. For example, studies show that the more weak ties you have, the better your chances of finding a good job.
Waldinger and Schulz suggest several strategies to help you improve your relationships. If you’d like to increase your weak ties, look at your existing social group. Who do you regularly interact with that you don’t know well? If you’d like to improve your close friendships, reconsider your patterns. Many of us fall into a rut in our friendships. Think about what you normally do or talk about with your current friends, and mix things up if need be. For example, if you always go to trivia night with your friends, maybe you want to go hiking instead.
Additionally, pay attention to whether you’re the one usually providing or receiving emotional support in the relationship. If there’s an imbalance, think of whether you can provide more (by listening more) or receive more (by asking for more support).
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Good Life summary:
- That the key to a good life has nothing to do with your career or success
- How to evaluate the current quality of your relationships
- How to improve relationships with your friends, partner, family, and coworkers