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The Secret to Happiness: Building Relationships

Stronger connections can help boost your mood and self-esteem, experts say.

Amid busy schedules and demands on our time that seem to come from every direction, it can feel almost impossible as parents to create and maintain strong relationships. But creating relationships and preserving the quality and intimacy of them is worth the effort: research shows that relationships are the key to happiness.


In a recent TEDx Beacon Street Talk titled “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness,” Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger said that “people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.”


Waldinger should know: he’s the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a 75-year-long study of 724 adult men.


With limited time and energy, what sort of relationships are most important? Unfortunately, the time you spend on social media is not filling your relationship bucket.


“It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters,” Waldinger said. In his article on happiness, Art Markman noted that while casual interactions (like with the barista or bus driver) enhance your feeling of belonging, interactions with close friends and family are most powerful in boosting happiness.


How can you attain that quality, intimacy, stability and consistency in new and existing relationships? Here are some ideas for parents:


Schedule it. Set a goal to connect with someone every day. This could be as simple as a phone call, or more ambitious, like taking a trip with friends. Also schedule activities where you may meet new friends, like volunteer opportunities or meetings at your place of worship or children’s school. The key is to put it on the calendar so you set aside the time.


Don’t do something alone if you could do it together. Like to run? Join a running club. Need to weed the garden? Do it alongside your spouse, or offer to help a friend in their garden after you tackle your garden together, too. Even a trip to the grocery store or the mall can be done with someone else. Heading to the playground or to a museum with your kids? Ask a friend to join you, or just make a point to chat with other parents that are there, too.


Say yes. When we feel pulled in many directions, it’s so tempting to say no to invitations to join a committee or volunteer at school or in the neighborhood. However, time and again parents report that these opportunities are where they have met close friends. Instead of viewing these requests as demands on your time, start to think of them as opportunities to strengthen your relationships and meet new people.


Host. Hosting doesn’t need to be fancy or a lot of work. If you meet people at your children’s school or through a sports team or class, invite a few kids and parents over for pizza and playtime. Host your neighbors for outdoor cocktails. Gather some friends together for a movie night. When you take the first step, hopefully your guests will reciprocate and friendships will form or strengthen.


Reprioritize. Assess the demands on your time, and choose the ones that strengthen human connections. A long lunch break with a co-worker may feel irresponsible given your to-do list, but it’s important. A hike with a friend may burn fewer calories than a run by yourself, but it will ultimately make you healthier!


Be present. When you are with other people, connect with them. In the bleachers at your kids’ sports practices, engage with other parents. When attending a meeting, make a point to remember others’ names, and consider inviting them out for a bite or a drink after the meeting.


Join up! Many commenters on our Facebook pages say that they met friends by joining social groups. Groups on Meet-up gather people who live near one another or share interests. Book clubs or adult sports teams are also opportunities to meet others or strengthen existing friendships through a shared interest.


Give thanks. Many people say that they feel rejuvenated after spending time with friends and family, and that doing so “fills their bucket.” Enjoy that feeling and let it inspire your next effort to connect with others. On the Happier website, author Nataly Kogan writes that “taking the time to feel grateful for the people in your life actually deepens those bonds” and makes your relationships more powerful happiness boosters.



Photograph via iStock. 



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