You likely know how important your relationships are to your happiness.
A recent Harvard University study confirmed this. After following 268 men for more than 70 years, the study’s founding director summed up its finding with a single thought: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
This holds true with both personal relationships and professional relationships, according to writer and editor Jessica Stillman who regularly writes for Inc.com about making life more meaningful and joyful. “Studies show that warm relationships positively influence job satisfaction and income,” says Stillman.
Good friends are the best stress buster available, Stillman explains. And, as the saying goes, relationships make the world go ‘round.
The 5:1 ratio for happy relationships
Backed by decades of research by perhaps the most respected expert in the field of marital stability, John Gottman, happiness in relationships can be boiled down to one simple strategy: “Make sure your relationship follows the 5:1 ratio.”
With his research, Gottman had the ability to predict which couples would divorce — with 90 percent accuracy. As the Gottman Institute website explains, the difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict.
That “magic ratio” of 5 to 1 means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.
“These interactions need not be anything big or dramatic,” says Stillman. “A simple eye roll or raised voice counts as a negative interaction. A quick joke to defuse tension, a squeeze of a partner’s hand or listening closely when your partner vents about his or her day all constitute a positive interaction.”
The important thing isn’t the scale of the gestures. It’s their frequency. Awareness is the key. When you find yourself getting frustrated, switch the focus to doing something thoughtful for your partner, however small that may be.
The 5:1 ratio in business
An article by Stillman for Inc.com relates this theory to the business world. Employees will almost certainly perform better for a boss who offers additional warm and helpful interactions to balance out any gruff comments. In fact, the article cites that the ratio is a handy standard to keep in mind for all your relationships.
“Humans are complicated, and the details of maintaining healthy, positive relationships, as we all know, can get tricky,” concludes Stillman. “But all relationships are off to a great start if you begin by setting the 5:1 ratio as a baseline for how you interact with each other.”
Positives and negatives are not created equal
Gottman describes four characteristics as being particularly damaging to relationships. He calls them The Four Horsemen: defensiveness, criticism, contempt and stonewalling. A quick caveat also comes into play here.
Positive and negative actions are not necessarily proportional. For example, if you criticize your wife in front of her family and then offer to take her to dinner, the latter doesn’t make up for the former. One negative interaction does more harm to your relationship than one positive interaction helps it. As Gottman points out, “the bad is more powerful than the good.”
Licensed professional counselor Kari Rusnak (www.karirusnakcounseling.com), a Certified Gottman Therapist, shares the following tips to have more positive interactions:
- Be an active listener – Ask questions and make eye contact.
- Share appreciation – Tell your partner things you appreciate about them every day.
- Engage in acts of service — Do something for your partner that takes the stress away from them, like a chore or task for which they’re normally responsible.
- Find ways to have fun together.
- Show validation – Phrases like “That makes sense” or “I can understand how you feel that way” can make a world of difference.
Just flow with it
Obviously, we don’t need to keep score of every interaction. Just keep the concept in the back of your mind to balance out those ebbs and flows in your relationships.
After you incorporate more positive interactions, see if it makes a difference in the quality of your relationships. A little every day (what Gottman calls “small things often”) can get you closer to the magical 5 to 1 ratio.
And that can be golden.