Five Secrets of a Better (Valentine's?) day

Whether you love or loathe Valentine’s Day, this blog is for you!

Indeed, I study marriage and couples. In fact, I study the little interactions – the gestures, words, comments, glances – that make relationships good and bad, ugly and beautiful. While this blog is inspired by today’s “love holiday” and my current reading of the book For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (Parker-Pope, 2010), my message here is meant to be a persuasive and informative one apt for all humans – meaning those who have friends and family or live or work with other humans. Yep, that’s you.

Here is an uber-brief tutorial on five ideas that I believe, and research shows, humans should know, consider, learn and try (assuming, of course, you seek happier, healthier interactions with the people around you … every day).

• Reciprocity. It’s a beautiful little secret of the human condition, but one we oft-forget. If I change my approach and behavior, others will (magically, it seems) likely respond in kind. We do what is done to us. “Hi!” “Hi to you, too.” Or: “You’re lazy.” “Well, you’re mean.” Almost always, humans give back what they get. Don’t like how your mornings, evenings or days are working out? Try changing your ways and those around you will likely change theirs.

• Bids for connection. My favorite relationship researcher is John Gottman, Ph.D., a superstar researcher who can predict divorce with 94 percent accuracy (University of Washington, Gottman Institute for Relationships). One of his lessons emerging out of 40 years of unprecedented laboratory studies: when we make bids for connection (any gesture, question, comment, motion, movement, hint, utterance … verbal or nonverbal … a “hmm” or a “want to go for coffee?” or “good morning” or “hey, what’s new with you?”), we are looking to fulfill the most basic human need: the “I want to be connected to you.” Such needs – and bids – can be quite fleeting. If you want better relationships with others, tune into their often-subtle bids for connection. The chances someone will re-bid after having their bid ignored or denied? Almost zero.

• The Ratio. Gottman’s research also reveals a simple truth about intimate interactions – one that gives us hints about all relationships: happy couples have five times more positive moments than negative moments in their interactions. Yes, five times more J than L. The lesson? One that applies to all human relationships: people thrive on large doses of positivity. Maybe it’s more like 3:1 with colleagues and friends and acquaintances? Whatever the ratio, review point No. 1 above (and No. 2).

• The Handwritten Note. Call it old school, retro or vintage: The handwritten note is coming back into fashion. Why? Because email, texting, tweeting and posting on Facebook walls is just too easy. The result? The message of the handwritten note: it’s becoming louder. More palpable. And precious (like anything nearly extinct). If you want to say, “I’m really thinking of you/happy for you/applauding you/missing you/proud of you …” in the age of fast and digitized messages, write a note with your very own hands and fingers. And not just on holidays (refer back to point No. 3, and No. 2 … oh, and No. 1 again as well).

• Taking Down the Wall. What if we each were a little more okay with our humanness and thus a tad more open to criticism, feedback and observations from others? Because we’re wired to “defend” our tribes and ourselves – to ward off disease, attackers, outsiders and anything potentially harmful – we naturally “defend” ourselves from others’ feedback, especially those of the people closest to us. But it’s epidemic. Even when we don’t speak it out loud, we’re oftenthinking defensively. We’re all worthy and perfect, aren’t we? How could you criticize me? What if you tried this, instead: open yourself to being improved by others. You won’t lose anything. Instead, you’ll find respect, opportunities and better juju with, well, just about everyone. Neat, eh?

Happy (Valentine’s) Day … and beyond.