Other People Matter: 3 Ways to Strengthen All Your RelationshipsNone By Derrick Carpenter, MAPP
Certain people have a remarkable talent for translating science into practical wisdom. Chris Peterson, a positive psychology researcher who passed away in 2012, was one of these people. If asked to take the mass of research on well-being and boil it down to the most significant finding, he would say, "Other people matter." So much of our happiness is contingent on others, whether that means savoring a meal together, laughing while reminiscing over old photo albums, or performing an act of kindness to help someone in need. Not allowing us to miss the full picture of this message, Chris often reminded his students not only that other people matter for us, but also that we are the "other people" who matter for others.
In honor of his message, here are three tips for building the quality and quantity of your relationships with others.
Pinpoint Their Strengths
How often do you stop to think about what makes the people you love so great? Part of Chris’s monumental work in positive psychology was the development of the VIA (Values In Action) Classification of Character Strengths, a collection of 24 human virtues valued across cultures and time. They include creativity, hope, bravery, and fairness. Everyone has a set of signature strengths (find out yours by taking the assessment on Happify), the ones they use most often and most naturally, and research shows that using your signature strengths in new ways boosts well-being. Take a look—a good look—at the people you care about and identify a few of their signature strengths. When you see someone act from a strength, name it. And then give them opportunities to use it more.
Plan an activity for you and a friend in which you both get to use your signature strengths. An example might be cooking a meal from a different culture where you take the lead on researching the recipes (curiosity) and your friend documents the night with photographs (appreciation of beauty and excellence). There are endless possibilities as long as you keep strengths the focus and inspire each other in the process. Encouraging others to be the best of who they are naturally brings out the best in us.
Respond to Good News (the Right Way)
Psychologist Shelly Gable of UCLA has researched what makes relationships great. A big factor is how people respond when others share good news. In other words, what do you say when your partner tells you he just got a promotion, when your daughter brings home the math test she aced, or when a friend calls to give you the highlights of her vacation in Europe? Gable’s research shows that we often point out problems with the news (“Does this new role at work mean longer hours?”), react positively but say little (“Nice work, dear.”), or seem uninterested (“Did you hear that Amanda has a new boyfriend?”). Unfortunately, these response styles do little to strengthen relationships.
However, the other (better!) option is to respond actively and positively to the good news by asking questions and engaging the person to help them relive their excitement. Gable calls this “capitalizing”. When we capitalize with someone we care about, we strengthen the relationship both now and for the future. Next time someone you love has good news to share, take a minute to really listen and enjoy the moment together.
Take a Walk
In their shoes, that is. Have you ever sped past other cars on a suburban road because you’re running late picking up a child, thinking to yourself, “I don’t want him to worry. I better get there on time!” But when you see another driver speeding past on a different day, you mutter, “What a jerk! Slow down!” When observing the behavior of others, we have a tendency to overestimate the effect of personality and underestimate the effect of circumstances. But when thinking about our own behavior, we do a much better job taking circumstances into account. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error. In the example above, we tend not to think about what might be causing the other person to speed. So next time you catch yourself judging someone, take a metaphorical walk in their shoes and ask yourself, “What circumstances might make them do that?” Approaching others with a foundation of understanding allows kindness to shine through and opens us to the possibility of new connections.
Derrick Carpenter, MAPP, coaches individuals on living engaged and inspired lives, runs experiential corporate leadership programs, and trains US Army personnel on resilience. He's researched what makes people great in psychology labs at Harvard, Yale, and UPenn, where he received his Master of Applied Positive Psychology.
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