Interest in “happiness” is exploding! Book after book talks about new research. There’s an outpouring of international interest in Gross National Happiness, measuring progress in terms of the well-being of people and the planet, not just Gross Domestic Product.
Why this new interest? There seems to be a sense of urgency, a feeling that we can’t just go on in our same, old ways. We know that people and the planet are in deep trouble.
And much of that trouble can be traced to our confusion about happiness. Our mistaken belief that lots of money brings happiness has meant that we’ve stood by as profit-without-principle became our country’s chief goal.
We’ve accepted the greed and devastation to people and the planet because we believe that someday we will be rich and, therefore, we’ll be happy.
But neither is true. We’re extremely unlikely to get rich, (there are very few rags-to-riches stories these days), and after a certain point, more money does not bring greater happiness.
What does? Social ties — friends and family and community; a feeling of safety and security because we know that we belong, that we’re cared for, that we will not be left alone and abandoned. There’s little of this in our cutthroat economy.
There are so many things that undermine our connection with others, and there are so many reasons to feel discouraged about making a difference. We feel helpless in the face of the wars we’re fighting, the hardheartedness of those who would cut humane programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Talking, listening are key
But there is something we can do. We can make a difference by building community and caring for the common good — through conversation!
Conversation? Yes, talking with others builds your health, happiness and longevity.
But conversation is on the decline. E-mailing, texting and Tweeting just don’t give the same emotional benefits as having a good talk.
Real conversation means taking time to stop and chat with people, having people over, supporting your local stores where you get to know the owners.
And it means taking stock of your conversation skills. Our competitiveness has bled into our conversation. We compete for attention, trying to turn the conversation to ourselves rather than listening to the other person.
Some dominate, hogging most of the air space. Others argue, wanting to impress, rather than just connecting as friends and equals.
Your purpose, when you converse, is not to win; it is to help the other person feel that you respect them, care for them, enjoy them and support them. The goal is to connect.
Learning to converse
Here are a few guidelines.
- Ask good questions — “How are you” goes nowhere. I’ve started saying, “Well, what’s new with you?” I find people give it some thought and genuinely try to tell me what’s going on in their lives. Then you share your stories with them.
- Equal air time — Try to monitor yourself to see if you’re talking too much. I’ve found that some people are so hungry for attention that when they find a sympathetic ear, they think it’s an interview! Sometimes, when people are in distress, they need more time, but otherwise, it should be a shared back and forth.
- Don’t argue — The purpose of conversation is connection, not winning. It doesn’t mean you don’t offer your point of view, but you simply tell your experience or opinion and drop it. Don’t try to convince or persuade. The relationship is more important than being right.
- Don’t complain too much — John Gottman, the renowned relationship expert at the University of Washington, puts it quaintly: Try not to develop a crabby habit of mind. Yes, things are horrible in many ways, but continual ranting is unpleasant for everyone. (I tell my husband to just say, “Rant No. 24,” when he feels like denouncing something.)
- Use a lot of supportive comments — Interject things like, “Good point,” “I agree,” “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” as well as supportive gestures like nodding your head, leaning forward, including murmurs of “mmhm,” “yeah” and so on.
- Be an easy laugher — Not phony, of course. The best laughter is sympathetic laughter that just bubbles up, laughing for the pleasure of being together.
Well, that’s a start. The better you get at conversation, the more enjoyable it becomes and the more you’ll engage in this ancient — and crucial — art.
CECILE ANDREWS is the author of “Less is More,” “Slow is Beautiful” and “Circle of Simplicity.” She can be reached at cecile AT cecileandrews DOT com.