Something in yesterday’s “Modern Love“ column struck me as ringing true, not only for enduring marriages but for flourishing friendships, “Being single is all about the future, about the person you’re going to meet at Starbucks or after answering the next scientific compatibility questionnaire. Being married, after a certain point, is about the past, about a steadily growing history of moments that provide a confidence of comfort, an asset that compounds over time.”
Perhaps friendships also compound with our attentive interest over time.
Holidays are poignant anyway. Why not use the emotions that arise to deepen your relationships? Choose the role you want to play in other’s lives, rather than fall into the one you are expected to play.
Inevitably we will disappoint each other at times. The key however to satisfying, enduring friendships or marriage is not obvious. In fact it is often baffling.
We are most likely to assume the secret to friendship is how often we are happy in the company of friends as compared to the moments they disappoint us.
Yet if we want to keep and cultivate that valued relationship – and be happier in it – here’s some seldom-discussed habits to practice. Some go against the grain of our instinctive behavior and I confess I am not adept at them. But they are well worth practicing and there’s no better time than this holiday. Inevitably as we gather or call each other or exchange emails, we are contemplating our family and friends and the roles we play in each other’s lives.
To bring your friends closer and enjoy them more, consider altering your role in their lives. In fact, create new scenes to create the storyline you want to live for the rest of your life.
Here’s three ways to bring out the best side of the main characters who most matter to you and increase your mutual appreciation of each other.
1. Focus on their strongest talent and temperament
Praise friends when they are displaying their strengths. Give them slack when they aren’t, as Gretchen Rubin suggests in The Happiness Project. In practicing genuine praise, in the moment, you’ll feel become less reactive and they’ll feel safer and accepted. That attitude and action paves the road to reciprocal praise behavior and to greater closeness.
2. Practice the Golden Golden Rule
Rather than doing unto others as you would have done unto you, step outside yourself. Instead do unto others as they would have done unto them. Act and speak to support them in the ways they most need and value, not the ways that most matter to you.
One of the most precious ways is to show appreciation for the ways they are better than you. For example, David Sarasohn notes, “I am somewhat better with words than my wife is; she is infinitely better with people. In different ways, we translate each other to the rest of the world, and admire each other’s contrasting language skills. Being married to someone you respect for being somehow better than you keeps affection alive. That this impressive person chooses you year after year makes you more pleased with yourself, fueling the kind of mutual self-esteem that can get you through decades.”
3. Cultivate a Positive Attribution Bias
Notice how often you smile, praise, and give slack as compared to taking umbrage, making an abrupt, hurt or hostile face or sharply commenting back when you feel you have not been well-treated. (I find this terribly hard to do yet am working on it.)
Here’s why this is so powerful.
If happy couples who stay together have a high ratio of positive to negative interactions with each other it seems likely that behavior among friends would yield the same result. In short, when a valued friend does something that jars you assume the best of intentions. Here’s the payoff. In a study people were asked, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you cannot be too careful in dealing with people?” Your answer reflects the strength of your relationships.
Couples are more likely to divorce when they:
• Are more likely to attribute the good things in their lives together to their partner’s selfish motivations. of their partner. “He’s cleaning the house just to butter me up for his fishing weekend with his buddies.”
• Blame their problems and daily hassles on their partners. “If she’d stop nagging me about reviewing our bills we’d have more fun on weekends.”
Couples are happier and more likely to stay together when:
• Generously give credit to their partner for things that happen.
• See hidden virtues accompanying their partner’s foibles and faults.
Ironically this “assume the best” trusting behavior even affects countries, discovered Dacher Keltner, author of Born to Be Good. The lower the test level in the country the less likely it is doing well economically.
Looking for the good part in someone’s behavior is what Confucius believed was a way of making life meaningful for oneself and those in one’s life. He called this practicing “jen.” As Keltner describes it, “A person of jen, wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others. A person of jen brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion. Jen is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the goodness in others.”
3. Spend face time with each other. Regularly.
Not just over this holiday. Nothing reveals values as much as how you spend your time. Stay in contact in other ways when you are not nearby. With familiarity one reduces the chance of Attribution Bias. When your friend hogs the dinner conversation, talking about his difficult boss you have enough experiences with him to know that he needs to vent, wants concrete advice and is a good sounding board for you when the situation is reversed. In short, he has put emotional deposits in the bank of your friendship. You don’t make the Attribution Bias of mistaking his volubility with self-centeredness.
“The more moments we share the more comfort grows,” wrote David Sarasohn.
Yet where will you put your attention this holiday? Consider the Indian story of the two wolves inside of you. One can focus on the selfishness in friends and family members or the good. Whatever you focus on you will see more of around you. See greed and selfishness? That’s what you’ll expect. Look for moments of generosity and selflessness. That’s what you’ll reflect back – and increase the chances that you will experience more – with others.
Such practice is not as easy as buying gifts yet it may be the most precious present we can give those we cherish and hope to bring closer – and enjoy ourselves. As Jonathan Haidt reminds us. “For most of us relationships are the surest route to happiness.”
Thank you all for the thoughtful, kind and generous comments, emails, calls and other ways of reaching out and friendship throughout this year. Here’s to our practicing our kindest roles with and for each other in what promises to be a volatile 2010 where friendship can make all the difference. Light your candle to glow on your friends. Together we’ll cast a brighter glow on the good and reinforce that behavior in each other.