Despite what the gurus tell you, we don’t need close relationships to be happy. It’s a common myth and a cruel one. I feel uncomfortable thinking of all the people who mistakenly believe they are destined to remain unhappy because they don’t have close relationships. Yes, we need relationships, but those relationships don’t have to be close, they have to be healthy.
Having close, healthy relationships is a great way to satisfy our need to feel connected, but it’s not the only way. We can satisfy that need if we feel connected with the people around us: the shopkeeper, our neighbour, the gym staff, the people we meet . . .
In Okinawa, Japan, the term “Ichariba chode” means that when you meet someone for the first time you are already brother and sister. (In one Okinawan village, when there is a death the body is cremated and the person’s ashes are placed in a communal coffin, in which rest the ashes of the other villagers. That’s connected!)
When we feel connected with the people around us we feel connected with humanity. And that’s enough to satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’. That’s enough for core happiness.
We don’t need to have long conversations with the people around us – often a smile and a nod will suffice. As the proverb goes, ‘The shortest distance between two people is a smile.’
Some people talk and talk, but that doesn’t mean there is a quality connection. (Poor conversation skills lead to disconnection.) As corny as it might sound, if you feel comfortable wishing a passer-by ‘good morning’, and mean it, there is a good chance you will feel connected with humanity and that will help satisfy your ‘deep need to belong’.
Don’t let the happiness gurus tell you that you need close relationships to be happy. You don’t. You just need to have healthy relationships with humanity. That’s what this section is about.
(That said, if you do have healthy, close relationships, good luck to you! Enjoy them!)
‘For many years I was trapped by the cobwebs of the past. As I freed one limb and cleaned it another would become ensnared. Ties are persistent, but along the way I made new ties – my own delicate cobwebs, hopefully not sticky and smothering, but strong and firm. I may not be able to completely free myself from the cobwebs of the past but I can build a future strong enough to tip the balance. Then, rather than solve the past, the past becomes less ensnaring, perhaps even a little pathetic. It would be harder to prise myself from the past if I didn’t have a myriad of pairs of hands pulling me into the future. For me it is the future which has pulled me along.’ Helane Paizes (my lovely sister).
Q. ‘Mark, if what you say is true, why do so many experts in the field say close relationships are important for happiness?’
They read studies, and it’s easy to equate close relationships with happiness, because there is a strong and visible correlation. However, they don’t realise it’s the connection with ‘the tribe’ that we need, and having close relationships is merely the pleasurable, glamorous, five-star way to satisfy that need. They don’t see that there are other ways to satisfy that need which are less obvious, less glamorous, yet no less effective.
Plus, if they themselves are in a close, healthy relationship with someone it would be easy for them to assume that’s what is making them happy. They won’t realise it’s the connection they’re getting from the relationship, a connection which can be gained elsewhere, that’s providing them with core happiness. They’re confusing the temporary happiness (the pleasure) they get from their relationship with core happiness.
Q. ’Surely the connection between two happily married people is going to be stronger than a person’s connection with humanity?’
Of course, but to use an earlier analogy: eating in a five-star restaurant is a delicious way to get the nutrients we need, but we can get those nutrients eating healthy sandwiches. In the same way, we can feel connected the five-star way by being in a close relationship, yet still get that connection elsewhere. For those of us not lucky enough to be in a close, healthy relationship, we can still ‘eat sandwiches’ and satisfy our deep need to belong. Again, let’s not confuse pleasure with core happiness.
Q. ‘Mark, you say we don’t need close relationships. But some people need to be surrounded by friends. My sister finds toilet cubicles lonely.’
Your sister needs to find another way to get a sense of belonging, to reduce her dependency. Otherwise her neediness might result in her being exploited, easily influenced, or hanging out with ‘the wrong’ friends.
Having quality connections with the people we meet in life allows us to be more discerning about the close relationships we do choose to have.
By the way, when we learn how to be alone, we stop being lonely.
Q. ‘Mark, I found this in the magazine, ‘New Scientist, 4th September, 2011: “. . . During my 23-year stint as an FBI special agent, my colleagues and I looked into what Kaczynski, McVeigh and Rudolph (three mass murderers) had in common. The results were startling. All three were highly intelligent and well educated, with no previous history of criminal violence. But they all shared a profound inability to forge meaningful relationships. . . . (They were) all repeatedly unable to connect socially to the groups whose ideology they shared.” Mark, doesn’t this indicate that we need meaningful relationships?’
It indicates that we need the capacity to forge meaningful relationships. If those murderers were unable to forge meaningful relationships there is a good chance they were also unable to connect well with anyone.
Q. ‘Mark, studies show that if you are in a close relationship you are more likely to be happy.’
Studies would show that. If you are happy you are more likely to find yourself in a relationship. Happy people tend to attract people, and unhappy people tend to alienate them, so a correlation is unsurprising.
Q. ‘Are you saying that a person who relates well with the people they meet is better off, core happiness-wise, than a person with close but unhealthy relationships?’
‘Jack has shallow but healthy connections with lots of people; Jill has strong and healthy connections with her close family and friends. Who is better off?’
With regards to core happiness, neither. Both feel connected with humanity. Both satisfy their deep need to belong.
With regards to temporary happiness, Jill is better off because she gets the pleasures associated with having healthy, close relationships.
Q. ‘Why might a person have healthy relationships but not have close relationships?’
A person might move interstate and know no-one. Friends move away. People can be loners. The important thing is: if your day-to-day relationships with the people you meet are healthy, your need to feel connected will be met. That means you won’t need friends. A neediness won’t be there. If you don’t make friends you won’t be lonely, and if you do make friends you will make them at your leisure, with discernment. You won’t be possessive, or dependent upon your friendships, and you will feel connected with the human race. That’s the important bit.
If you aren’t OK with being alone, then being in a relationship is going to be fundamentally flawed. Why? Because you become dependent. You need the other person . . . to pay attention to you, to give you validation and comfort and love. Now, all of those things are nice, but needing someone else for them means you become needy, desperate, and those aren’t attractive qualities.’
Leo Babauta, from his Zen Habits blog.
Q. ‘I guess people join their ‘tribes’ to feel they belong, too.’
Yes, the tribes mentioned near the beginning of the book.