Lori Case Marchak
November 6, 2015
Scientists these days have joined the ranks of religious leaders, psychologists and others who study the secrets to happiness. With their hard data and scientific method, they increase our confidence in the path to increase happiness in our own lives. It’s no secret what doesn’t work—happiness is not about accumulating wealth, achievements, or possessions. Happiness isn’t about successes, even happy experiences like having a baby or getting a promotion. Our happiness likewise isn’t determined by our experience of tragedy and loss. Here’s the secret to happiness, and how you can leverage your relationship to unlock it.
Happiness is about being fully present in life’s moments. University of California researcher Matt Killingsworth researched happiness by tapping into random moments in the lives of thousands of people. Using an iPhone app that acts like a therapist, folks rate their happiness or unhappiness when queried “how do you feel” at random moments. Then the app asks a series of questions about what’s going on in that moment. Tracking correlates to momentary feelings of happiness or unhappiness across hundreds of thousands of random moments in time leads to only one bottom line: We are much happier when our mind is focused on the present moment. When we mentally wander from the present moment, even when our mind strays to avoid negative experiences, we are significantly less happy.
This message is the same one that the Buddha and Buddhist teachers have been sharing for thousands of years. To get a sense of the Buddhist teachings, check out this Oprah interview with world spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, who shares tips for being fully present with your partner.
The question then becomes, how do we get our mind to stop wandering, be still, and be fully engaged with what’s right in front of us? Priceless, timeless Buddhist methods include a daily practice of meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude. Another method that can be powerfully effective is to work with a psychotherapist to identify and resolve unconscious, internal conflicts that fuel chronic distraction, pressure, numbness, anxiety, or anger—all of which take us away from the present moment. Yet another path, outlined here, is to leverage your relationship to become more present, securing not only your happiness, but your relationship’s happiness too.
1. Take time to share your day. Make it a ritual to talk about your day. Both of you share your high points and your low points. This time becomes sacred and precious when we make these rules: no problem solving, no fixing, and no analyzing. Simply be with each other, joining together in each others felt experiences. This is a powerful way to heal wounds, small and large, as well as to heighten and expand positive emotions.
2. Come back to tense moments and slow them down, over and over again, until you get to the bottom of them. We all trigger, irritate, and hurt each other at times. Psychologist and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy founder Sue Johnson emphasizes that what couples do in these moments determines whether their relationship is secure or insecure. Most couples fight about these moments or ignore them, then sweep them under the rug until the next time. Instead, at a pace that is right for both of you, come back to that moment and slow it down. What happened? Look inside. What feelings are being triggered? Slow down to uncover layer upon layer of feeling. On the surface might be anger, frustration, or irritation. At the surface of emotions you might also experience numbness, embarrassment, or anxiety. Slow down further, look deeper, and you’ll likely find layers of sadness, fear, shame, and ultimately an unmet need for comfort or reassurance. Take a risk and ask for what you need. Safely uncovering and sharing deeper and deeper feelings and needs, resolves and heals wounds we may otherwise carry for a lifetime. These conversations bond couples with a greater sense of connection, trust, and understanding. They lead to a much greater capacity to be present with each other and with life in general.
3. Expand your physical relationship to enjoy frequent touch. The simple act of a stroke on the hand, arm, or cheek can have the powerful effects of releasing oxytocin—the highly pleasurable “cuddle hormone,” and reducing cortisol, the stress hormone. Touch can turn off the brain’s threat response system and bring both you and your partner warm feelings of connection. Cuddling, hugging, holding hands, foot massages and other forms of intimate touch not only improve your body’s immediate chemistry, but help you both move out of mind wandering and into the present moment.
4. Take time to be grateful. While hundreds of studies have documented the health, psychological and social benefits of a daily gratitude practice, few of us actually do this. Consider leveraging your relationship to make a gratitude practice compelling. Engaging in a gratitude practice together helps both partners stay on track. Your benefits multiply as you share with each other, and multiply more as you express your gratitude for each other. With this practice, your mind will naturally slow down. You will become increasingly aware of precious moments with your partner and in your life. Without such a practice, these moments are likely to be invisible, drowned out by mind chatter.
If accomplishing these goals is difficult or impossible, don’t hesitate to seek out help. A qualified EFT couple therapist can help you get there, and so can attending one of our Hold Me Tight® workshops.
Whichever approach you decide to take, be it meditation, therapy, or leveraging your relationship with the steps outlined here, you won’t regret it. Small steps, repeated over time, lead to big changes in brain functioning and feelings of happiness.
Hold Me Tight® is a registered trademark of Sue Johnson.