The Importance of Improving Close Relationships

Recently, I blogged about how important it is to seek out positive people and also to avoid putting yourself needlessly into situations that drain you or are harmful to your attitude. That’s easy to do when we’re talking about, say, Pessimistic Peter in the accounting department. He’s not an integral part of your life, and it’s realistic to avoid his rants in the break room.

What’s not realistic is to avoid, say, a brother (who might always think he’s a victim), or a best friend (who has a tendency to dwell on how nasty her ex-husband is), or a mother-in-law (who constantly nitpicks), or even a spouse or significant other (who likes to point out everything that’s going wrong in your lives).

Obviously, I think it would be irresponsible, unwise, and even cruel to cut these relationships out of your life without a second thought. You see, while I stand by the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people, I also think that it’s always a good idea to put work into improving and strengthening your closest relationships. Think about it this way: Relationships are a two-way street. You can’t write them off without doing your part to make them work!

In my book, I recommend making a list of all of the people who are important to you. It might include friends, colleagues, neighbors, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and of course, most importantly, your own immediate family. Over the next six months to a year, make it your goal to reach out to each of these individuals, whether it’s through a phone call, a visit, or plans to go putt-putting together. Tell these people why they’re important to you and how they make your life better, and that you appreciate them or even love them.

And if there are any points of contention, anger, or unresolved grudges, make a sincere effort to resolve them. In most cases, you won’t significantly strengthen or improve these relationships in just one conversation. But you’ll have made a start. And if you regularly keep in mind why each of the people on your list is important to you, you’ll be motivated to reach out to them more regularly and to work through any negativity that might be keeping you from growing closer.

Now, I want to mention a few groups of people who should always be at the top of your relationship-strengthening list. One group is your parents. If you, like me, are blessed to still have spry, loving parents in your life, don’t take them for granted. (A friend who has lost his mother and father constantly reminds me of this.) There is no substitute for learning from your parents and letting them know how important they have been—and continue to be—in your life.

And those of you who know me well won’t be surprised by what I’m going to say next: The people on your list whom you must absolutely prioritize the most are your children (if you have any) and your spouse or significant other. First, you must realize that your children need to feel your love unconditionally and at all times, not only when they get a great report card and score goals on the soccer field. Also, it is devastating to children when their parents are clearly with them only in body and not in mind. (You know what I mean: You’re eating a bowl of ice cream with your kids, but you’re really thinking about the office, for instance.)

As for your spouse or significant other, it’s crucial to realize that this is the person who sees you every day at your best and at your worst, who is a partner in raising your kids, whose support can make or break your success, and whose attitude is integral to your own happiness (and vice versa!).

To put it bluntly, you must make your marriage your number one priority each and every day; otherwise, it will deteriorate just as surely as your car would without maintenance. In fact, I often think that marriage vows should be changed to something like this: “I promise to love you for better or for worse, in sickness and in health…so long as you continue to make me feel special and appreciated.” This new vow might sound funny at first, I know—but it’s also something that must be non-negotiable if you want to have a strong, successful relationship. Too many of us forget that we all need to feel special, appreciated, and good about ourselves, especially in the comfort of our own homes.

My best advice is to celebrate your spouse every day. In my case, I tell Yadira how beautiful she is and how much I love her many, many times each day. I even bring her flowers on occasion “just because.” We plan special nights out and we constantly show affection. I have found that when your spouse knows how much she (or he!) means to you, your marriage won’t be problem free…but it will be based on much more positive interactions and on increasing amounts of love. And trust me—that can make all the difference!

Remember, life is all about people. And the stronger your relationships are with your friends and loved ones, the happier you will be.

It’s Not Easy (or Happy!) Being Green

When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, you just can’t escape green. Even if you don’t wear it (and want to risk getting pinched), it’s still everywhere from store windows to menu specials to parades on TV. But that’s okay—on March 17th, green is good. “Irish” green is associated with happiness, celebrations, shamrocks, and the Emerald Isle. Too bad that’s not the case the other 364 days of the year!

The truth is, most of us normally experience green in a much more negative way: through envy. And that’s definitely not a good thing. Being in the clutches of the green-eyed monster can really sabotage your overall happiness. That’s because envy makes you focus on what you don’t have instead of all of the great things you do have.

Social media has really exacerbated the extent to which envy affects our lives. Think about it: Sites like Twitter and Facebook allow people to live their lives in full view of others…and sugarcoat every aspect of them. When you log on, you’re bound to see pictures and posts that read, “Most beautiful wedding ever!” “This was a dream vacation in paradise!” or “Drinks on me—I just got a promotion!”

As you’re scrolling through this never-ending list of good news, it’s all too easy to feel like you’ve gotten the short end of the stick and say, “Woe is me!” And, of course, it doesn’t help that your Facebook newsfeed doesn’t ever go away. You can always torture yourself by taking a look at how much “better” everybody else has it.

But here’s the thing: While you’re living your life in a constant haze of jealousy, you don’t see the other side of the coin. What social media might not tell you is that the friend who got a promotion might also have just had a huge fight with her spouse. But unless she is one of those people who thrive on drama, she isn’t going to post those details of her personal life…and you won’t know that things aren’t as perfect as they seem.

The bottom line is, jealousy doesn’t do anybody any good. It makes you feel needlessly unhappy, and it can negatively affect your relationship with others. Here are six of my tips to help you banish envy the next time it starts to rear its ugly head:

  • Admit that envy is a problem. To some extent, envy is natural. You can’t go through your life without feeling jealous from time to time. So first, simply take note of when and why the green-eyed monster makes an appearance. (You may not even have consciously realized what you’re feeling!) Specifically, be aware of how strong your emotions are and what effect they have on your attitude and behavior.

You don’t have to take your emotional temperature every five minutes, but being generally aware of the role envy plays in your life can really make a difference in your behavior. For instance, if you’re carrying around a lot of anger toward a coworker because the boss liked his project proposal instead of yours, it could be making you unnecessarily snarky, critical, and negative. That means that you’re ruining your own day and hurting your performance…and you might also be burning some office bridges you’ll regret later!

  • Remember that “happiness” looks different for everyone. When you’re constantly comparing yourself to the Joneses, you’ll suffer several unintended consequences. First, worrying about how you don’t measure up robs you of your present happiness. Plus, it leaves you unable to think about how you really want your own life to look.

We talk about the American dream of a house, a pool, two cars in the garage, and the proverbial white picket fence. But the truth is, the same cookie-cutter mold doesn’t work for everybody! The lifestyle that makes your neighbor or your cousin or your dentist happy might not work for you. And if that’s the case, who cares if it’s flashier, more glamorous, or “cooler”? Trust me, when you give yourself permission to live your life on your terms instead of letting others set the bar (and feeling jealous as a result), you might be surprised by how good you already have it.

  • Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Yes, living with an “attitude of gratitude” is a clichéd concept. But infusing it into your life will also totally change your viewpoint…especially if you have a chronic case of “the envies.” The fact is, it’s very easy to take things for granted: the information your coworker emailed you, the fact that your car is running, and even the food you’re eating for dinner. Most of us have gotten into the habit of ignoring all of the good things in our lives, and instead, we focus our mental energy on being upset about what’s wrong. But it can be a true game changer when you reverse the time you spend thinking about each.

Over the course of my life, I have learned that it’s smarter to thank others because of how they make your life better instead of secretly resenting them because they have something you don’t. And yes, it does take a while to make this change in how you habitually think. To start tapping into the power of gratitude, just say “thanks” to the people who help you out during your day. (You might even work up to writing thank-you notes, as I do.) And beyond that, try to notice all of the blessings in your life. For me, my wonderful wife and extraordinary son top the list, as well as the fact that I finally get to do what I love—help others live happier lives. In time, you’ll start to notice that most of your envy has miraculously left the building.

  • Focus on others…but in a different way. If you have an hour or so of free time, you could spend it by trawling Facebook (and maybe watching a reality show that highlights the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the background). At the end of that hour, you’ll probably feel dissatisfied with your own lot in life, if you’re not outright angry at how “good” other people have it. Or, you could spend your free time helping your kids build a fort in the backyard, using your financial know-how to help a friend set up a much-needed budget, or even volunteering at a local organization that needs an extra pair of hands.

If you choose the second option, you’ll be a lot happier—guaranteed. Instead of focusing on how much you think your life sucks, focus on how you can use your strengths to help others’ lives be better. It will take the same amount of time but will be so much more uplifting and productive. We all have a choice: We can choose to look to the right and see people who have “more,” or we can choose to look to the left and see others who aren’t as fortunate…and whom we can tangibly help. I firmly believe that the greatest fulfillment in life comes not from satisfying ourselves, but from helping others.

  • Be generous. You’ve heard the saying, “The more you give, the more you receive.” Well, that goes for happiness, gratitude, help, friendship, and more! When you are generous with these things, you’ll invite them back into your life, too. People who are positive, supportive, and loving experience life very differently from those who are jealous and negative.

Here’s an easy example of what I mean. Say your friend just got engaged, and you’re still looking for your own Mr. (or Ms.) Right. It’s okay to feel a twinge of jealousy at first. But instead of feeding the fire by scowling at a newly posted album of engagement photos and wishing that you too could change your relationship status to “engaged,” call your friend and congratulate her! You’ll have to acknowledge that she didn’t say “yes” with the intention of making you feel bad, and you’ll probably also hang up the phone feeling happy for her.

  • Pay more attention to the little things. If you think about it, a lot of us experience envy over the “big” things: relationships, wealth, career opportunities, vacations, houses, etc. But it’s also true that all of our happiness doesn’t come from, say, getting a new car—a lot of it also comes from a variety of little things that add up.

Take a few minutes and think about what makes you happy on a day-to-day basis. It might be eating a delicious meal, taking a few minutes to read a chapter in your latest book, or taking a walk with your spouse. Then, make an effort to incorporate those things into your life as often as you can. Think about it this way: You can’t give yourself a promotion at work, but you can definitely get yourself a yummy cup of coffee on your way into the office. When you let the little things make you happy more often, there will be less room for envy to creep in.

Ultimately, don’t underestimate the insidious power of envy. If you allow it to take root in your life, it will bring you only bitterness, isolation, and disappointment. But the good news is, it really is in your power to take charge of the green-eyed monster. Just remember, if you always try to focus on what is going well in your life, you will feel much more balanced and look back on your life with much less regret. I promise, taking gradual steps to banish jealousy will make you happier each and every day!

 

Spend More Time with Positive People

I’ve spoken before about how having a negative friend can really bring you down. Having the right people in your life can truly make a difference in your overall happiness, and so I wanted to dig a little deeper into this topic with my post today.

I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but looking back, it’s clear to me that one of the major reasons why I fell in love with and married my wife is that she always made me feel great. Yadira is consistently positive, uplifting, and fun, and while it may sound cliché, when I’m with her, I feel like the best possible version of myself.

And over the years, I have gradually learned to apply that “how does this person make me feel?” test to all of my relationships. The fact is, when you spend time with some people, you feel relaxed, happy, and motivated. However, when you’re with others, you feel frustrated, pessimistic, and even upset.

Whether you’re talking about family members, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, or another group, the people you spend your time with can make or break your quest for happiness. Did you know that because we instinctively look for validation and guidance from the people around us, we eventually begin to pick up the habits, outlooks, and attitudes of those we’re with the most? Psychologists call this phenomenon “social proof,” and I think we all need to be more aware of how it impacts our lives.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to dump all of your friends and acquaintances who have ever uttered a complaint or a cynical comment. However, based on my own experiences, I do know that it helps to spend more time with people who are productive and constructive while politely limiting your interactions with the “Debbie Downers” of your acquaintance. I touched on this topic in a previous post on how to handle negative friends, but I think the concept bears repeating. You don’t do yourself any favors by letting toxic relationships remain in your life.

Yes, I’ll admit—it’s tough to take the initiative and weed unhealthy people and situations out of your life. But it’s also a kind of litmus test for how important being happy, healthy, and fulfilled really is to you. Is your outlook worth walking away when your coworkers start griping about the boss—or even the government—with no intention of offering solutions? Is your peace of mind worth saying, “Hey Cous, I know you don’t agree with all of my decisions, but I’m not going to change my mind. So can we agree not to rehash this stuff when our family is all together over the holidays?” And is improving a bad day worth calling up your best buddy so that you can remind yourself of how blessed you really are? These are all seemingly small actions and decisions that can make a huge impact on your life.

Think of this process as weeding, fertilizing, and watering a garden. These tasks might not be fun while you’re doing them, but they will be creating an environment that will enable you to grow to your full potential. And, my friends, if you ever catch me bringing you down instead of lifting you up, please let me know. We are all in this together!