Liberty's January Blog
I recently stumbled upon something called the Grant study, a 75 year long study of 268 Harvard graduates from the class of 1939-1944. Interestingly, it is one of the longest-running and comprehensive longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being ever conducted in history.
The findings reveal that the strongest predictor of happiness is (drum roll): not wealth, not beauty, not health, nor a svelte body, but rather, good relationships. Principle investigator George Vaillant's main conclusion is that "warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on 'life satisfaction.'" Or in a nutshell, Vaillant says the study shows: "Happiness is love." As a therapist I find this utterly fascinating, but not surprising.
For this reason, I have long been a passionate proponent of family therapy. After all, we are not islands, we all exist as part of a larger system. When our relationships with people in our system aren't good, we aren't happy. It goes without saying that I want my clients to be happy, so I try to help in any way I can to improve their relationships.
Some of the most meaningful work I've done as a therapist is when I've been able to help family members construct new meaning and connections. I have felt honored to be allowed entrance into the often chaotic and beautiful inner realm of families. Can't all of our families be described in this manner? Messy and beautiful.
In my early work training as a family therapist in Philadelphia, I was assigned the toughest defiant, suicidal and often violent teenage clients and their families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I worked with these families in their homes and it wasn't uncommon for windows to break, walls to be punched and scuffles to break out. These kids were at risk for removal from their homes and their parents were at their wits' end, exhausted and hope starved. They were existing as walled off islands, often surrounded by barbed wire, beneath the same roof.
At first I felt utterly unqualified, and frankly terrified at times, and then I learned how to build relational bridges. And I saw how these little bridges served as life rafts to keep families afloat. Where human connection is absent, chaos ensues. When you can re-connect a teenager to his parent for example, I find that often he or she actually wants to follow the rules. I learned how to facilitate re-connection which often hinged on forgiveness and reconciliation. And when it worked it was like the angels in Heaven were singing. I think relational miracles are the most beautiful of all.
A friend recently relayed a beautiful story of a relational miracle that happened in her life over the holiday season. For a variety of complicated reasons, she had been estranged from her mother-in-law. At family gatherings over the past year she said that when she approached her mother-in-law, she acted cold and aloof. Once she even went so far as to walk away when my friend addressed her, as if she didn't even exist. Warmed by the hope that the new year held and perhaps some goodwill toward all Christmas spirit, she approached her mother-in-law and humbly said, "Let's have a fresh start. I'm so sorry for everything that's happened between us." To her great surprise she was received with tears and a hug. "I would love that," her mother-in-law said. *
I love my friend's bravery to extend warmth in the face of what had become a relational Arctic tundra. "Family is family," she told me, "I had to keep trying. We should never give up on family." Relationships that have turned cold require someone to step out in faith and try infusing warmth again. I was so encouraged by the example my friend set of offering someone seemingly undeserving a new beginning. A new bridge of hope.
Bishop Desmond Tutu says that "To forgive is not just to be altruistic, it is the best form of self-interest.” He explains that holding on to pain and resentment is not just bad for our spiritual selves but for our physical bodies as well. He also said, and I love how he explains it in such powerful and simple terms, that forgiveness is offering someone the gift of a new beginning.
Don't we all need some new beginnings this year? May we all be challenged to take better care of ourselves and our relationships as we say yes to new beginnings, yes to relationships characterized by warmth, and yes to new levels of happiness and overall life satisfaction in in the year 2017.
*story shared with permission