Improve your relationships.


December GO Challenge:

Improve your relationships.

With the holidays fast approaching and social gatherings filling up your calendar, now’s a good time to examine your relationships. Are they as positive as they could be? Strong relationships not only help you feel jollier, they actually improve your health and longevity. Studies prove it.

People with positive social connections tend to have:

  • Longer lives. Studies show you have a 50% better chance of living longer if you have strong connections to family, friends and/or co-workers, as compared to loners. In fact, a solitary life can be as harmful to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
  • Less risk of dementia. A Swedish survey of people 75 years and older found that those with a large network of friends and relatives had less risk of developing dementia.
  • Better immune functioning. Research has found that married couples engaged in particularly hostile spats experienced lowered immunity. Takeaway: The quality of the relationship matters.
  • Better recovery from disease. A study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women who had 10 or more friends were four times as likely to survive the cancer as those without close friends. It didn’t matter how far away the friends lived either. Even long-distance friendships helped.
  • Fewer stress hormones. People in a committed relationship, married or not, tend to produce less of the stress hormone cortisol when things get tense. That’s good news for coronary arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, mental health, immune response and more.

4 ways to strengthen your social circle.

Much as we may pride ourselves on being independent, we all need others to survive. According to research professor Brené Brown, Ph.D., human beings are wired to love, be loved, and belong. And when these basic needs aren’t met, we can’t function the way we’re supposed to. We feel sad. We disengage. We get sick.

But the good news is, it’s easy to make connections and improve the relationships we already have. Here are some tips for nurturing your current relationships.

  • Be the friend you’d like to have. Treat others with the kindness, compassion and encouragement you’d like to receive. Remember, good relationships are reciprocal. And while there may be times when one of you is needier than the other, always try to give as much as you’re given.
  • Spend quality time. If you have a friend you haven’t seen in a while, arrange an outing. Go out to lunch with your sister. Play a game with your spouse. Take the kids on a bike ride. Talk on the phone or video chat with a faraway friend. You’ll be surprised how much closer you feel.
  • Really listen. When someone’s talking to you, pay attention. Don’t interrupt, and don’t be thinking about what you’re going to say next or how to bring the topic back to you. Make an effort to see things from their perspective, and be fully present for them.
  • Let go of “frenemies.” Do you have toxic friends who leave you feeling stressed, angry or drained of energy? Maybe it’s time to let go of these negative relationships so you can surround yourself with positive people who make you feel good. By the way, there’s no need for a formal “break-up” — just avoid the people who make you feel bad.

What if you’re stuck with a bad relationship? Maybe it’s a misbehaving in-law who ruins every holiday or an overly critical colleague who’s impossible to work with. How can you improve relationships like these? Try this 3-step approach:

  • Have realistic expectations. If you keep expecting people to behave the way you want them to, you’ll be disappointed every time. People are who they are. Accept that.  
  • Control your responses. While you can’t control others, you can control how you respond to them. Try to disengage from any upsetting situations and learn to say no to unreasonable requests.
  • Take a deep breath and let it go. In the heat of the moment, ask yourself: If I were on my deathbed, would this insult/slight/misdeed even matter? Probably not. Remain calm and don’t sweat the small stuff.                                                              

Try these relationship dos and don’ts.

Positive relationships not only make you feel good, they’re as important to your long-term health as eating right, getting enough sleep and not smoking. That’s why you should never feel guilty about making time for friends and family. They’re an essential part of a healthy life.

Here are some more tips for improving your relationships.

  • Don’t forget the niceties. With longstanding relationships, it’s easy to take the other person for granted. Try the opposite approach. Say “please” and “thank you” often. Be generous with hugs and kisses. Use the person’s name (or pet name) when speaking to them. And always be warm, open and friendly. Smile!
  • Be empathetic. If your partner, friend or colleague is upset about something, resist the urge to tell them what they did wrong or how they can fix the problem (unless they ask). Just listen and offer a sympathetic ear. Try saying, “I’m so sorry that happened.”
  • Help without being asked. It’s easy to pitch in when someone asks for help. But only a true friend will step up before they’re asked — when they can see someone is struggling. Just make sure you’re offering specific assistance (“I’m going to make dinner for you and bring it over, okay?”) rather than a vague query (“Is there anything I can do to help?”).
  • Apologize. When you make a mistake, take responsibility for it. Fess up, say you’re sorry, and offer to make things right. No one wants to hear a lot of excuses or finger-pointing. People naturally gravitate toward those who take responsibility for their actions.
  • Clarify your needs. If you want something from someone, especially at work, ask for it clearly. Specify what you need, by when, and what it should look like. Clarifying your expectations can head off a lot of confusion for others and disappointment for you. Not a bad idea for significant others as well.
  • Stay in e-touch. Technology makes it easier than ever to stay connected. Besides email and texting, you can also reach out via social networking sites like Facebook, Skype or FaceTime (video chats), Instagram (photos, videos), or Pinterest (recipes, ideas, tips). Just remember, a text is no substitute for a good old-fashioned visit.

In the spirit of the holidays, here’s one last relationship tip that’s good any time of the year, but especially during this week of giving.

  • Give first, and expect nothing in return. Too often in relationships, we find ourselves selfishly asking, “What’s in it for me?” Try focusing on the other person instead. When you give of yourself freely to others, without expecting anything in return, you attract those same kinds of people to you. You also experience the true joy of giving.