Friday, September 14, 2012

Five surprising principles for living, loving, and playing well with others.

Lessons For Living

Image: Babies playing poker
Impressing others, managing money, advancing your career: No matter what your aspiration, there's a wealth of accumulated knowledge to help you reach it. But if your highest goal is to lead a satisfying life, your best shot is to seek out wisdom that helps you cultivate strong relationships of all kinds. Studies show that people who enjoy close ties with friends and family are happier, have fewer health problems, and are more resilient to the stresses of our times. "Good social connections aren't just important to living a fulfilling life—they're vital to any type of healthy life at all," says Will Meek, a psychologist at Washington State University. "When we lack stable and supportive relationships, we can become depressed and anxious."

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Moreover, our connections provide some of the best opportunities to grow in meaningful ways, says psychologist Harriet Lerner: "Any relationship can be a laboratory where we experiment with bold acts of change and learn something about ourselves, the other person, and the possibilities between us."
When it comes to seeking out bona fide relationship advice, don't limit yourself to self-help books—hard-won real-life wisdom can be more valuable than anything you'd find at Barnes & Noble. It's also wise to approach conventional relationship truisms with a critical eye. We've culled the data, consulted the experts, and arrived at some essential lessons that depart from hand-me-down norms.
Lesson #1 THE ROLE OF RADICAL ACCEPTANCEYou can't fix the ones you love, so focus on fixing yourself.
Decades ago, the musical Guys and Dolls lampooned our universal urge to change others with the lyrics "Marry the man today, and change his ways tomorrow." The idea that we can fix perceived flaws in our partners, friends, parents, and grown children, making them behave the way we want, remains tantalizing.
A healthy dose of ego often convinces us that our way of looking at things is right, but the truth is that trying to "correct" someone else's flaws usually backfires, says psychologist Paul Coleman, author of "We Need To Talk": Tough Conversations With Your Spouse. "It implies that we're coming from a more enlightened place, that we have a deeper knowledge of what's best," he says. The other person may get the message that he or she isn't good enough, and turn resentful—creating an atmosphere that smothers affection and creates distance.
Image: Babies dressed as animals crawling thru hoops
A healthier approach when you don't see eye to eye in a relationship you want to keep: "Look inward to fix the problem rather than trying to change the other person," says Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel—even if that just means practicing acceptance. If you know your partner hates large gatherings, consider attending the next party solo so he doesn't have to make forced conversation and you don't have to leave early (and annoyed). Or if your son says he wants to forgo college for now, try to express enthusiasm for his budding career as a nature guide instead of bombarding him with links to school rankings.
Making accommodations like these involves the crucial recognition that there are some matters on which you're never going to be in sync—and that you're willing to accept this in order to preserve the other's autonomy. "You have to say, 'We have this permanent difference, but we need to learn to live with each other,' " Coleman advises. Regardless of whether the other person changes, such acceptance communicates the basic respect that keeps relationships solid over time.
Lesson #2 THE BEAUTY OF BENIGN NEGLECTIt's more harmful to overparent than to underparent.
They provoke eye rolls from teachers and developmental experts alike: helicopter parents who hover relentlessly over their kids to keep them safe and fulfilled—see them sprinting over to the swings to right a playground injustice or emailing schools incessantly to check on their kid's progress. Then there are the gung-ho attachment parenting types who believe they must constantly wear their babies or share a family bed in order to build secure bonds.
In its various forms, the ├╝ber-doting mentality seems logical on the surface. Parents want their children to grow up feeling loved and happy; in an uncertain world of real (or perceived) dangers and intense competition for jobs, they may feel compelled to run interference to give kids every possible advantage in life. "There's a huge distrust in other parents and society's institutions that pushes parents to overparent. They overestimate the influence they themselves have on development," says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.
"Parents lack trust in children's desire to be competent and that nature will influence the course of development. They distrust that attachment is built into normal parenting, that it emerges from the basic routines of caring for a baby," she says. The compulsion to intervene becomes even stronger when parents view their offspring as surrogates for the fulfillment of their own happiness and deferred dreams, adds Tufts University child psychologist David Elkind, author of The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children.
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