There is a recipe for happiness. At least, there is a recipe for being more happy than not.
I’m extrapolating the recipe from some very interesting, physiology-based research by John Gottman and his team. His question was, “What makes some marriages last?” But I find that his answers can be applied to any relationship – inter- or intra-personal.
We all think that the types of interactions we have, with ourselves and others, matter. And of course, they do. But it turns out that they may not matter as much as we think, at lesat as far as longevity in relationship goes. Dr. Gottman found that the kind of relationship a couple had – tempestuous, polite, or analytical – mattered not at all. The determining factor for success of the relationship seemed to be the ratio of positive to negative interactions.
So if the couple being observed had lots of fights, but they had even more times extravagantly good times together – the relationship held. If a couple didn’t communicate much at all – but if enough of their few interactions were positive – the relationship held. And if they talked things over, the actual content of their conversation didn’t seem to matter – as long as they were copacetic more of the time than not.
The magic proportion Gottman found was 5:1 – five positive interactions to override one negative one. That’s a rich broth of positivity!
But it makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. If you make a mistake practicing an instrument, you need to play it several times correctly to make sure that the habit has been changed. And, in any kind of relationship, one mean word can take a lot of reassurance, comfort and redirection to neutralize.
Gottman’s 5:1 ratio has been one of the most practical bits of information I have ever come across. When I get angry with someone, I have learned to ask myself, Will expressing my negativity be worth the five positive things I will have to do to make this relationship right again? When I’m anxious, I sometimes remember, Every minute of stress is going to take five more minutes of deep breathing to dissipate, so I’d better start now! Stressful things happen to us – we can’t control that - but choosing not to escalate that stress is one big step towards happiness.
If we really lived this 5 : 1 ratio, it could have profound implications on our interactions with children.
When we see a behavioral issue coming up at home, or in a classroom, we tend to focus on the result we want. We just want the behavior to change. Often, this is because we are personally triggered into our own stress response by the child’s behavior. Because we are ourselves in stress, we don’t always pay attention to how that stress affects the child. We just want the behavior to change, at any cost, so we don’t have to deal with it any more ever again! Or we can’t let go of our ideal image of the child performing in a particular way, because we feel that the information to be learned is so important! But what we don’t admit, or even usually recognize, is that the intensity of our feeling is not usually about the child. It is about ourselves.
And when we act in this way, we are the child. We want the actual child to take care of us, of the unhealed places in our own psyches.
This isn’t fair. It isn’t good teaching. And what the child learns is that there is something wrong with him – because children are intuitive; they know that the response is about a lot more than what they just did. But they have to believe us.
This is one way children lose their confidence in themselves. To survive, they must prioritize the care-taker adult – because that is the way that children are wired to stay alive. They jettison their own instincts – and self-esteem – so that we can justify our own anger.
Of course, this probably happened to us as children, too. We’re just passing on what we learned.
If there is an actual emergency – No! the Stove is HOT!- the child will know it. That’s why they are wired to listen to us. But if the emergency is inside our own unhealed places – we need to find a way to interact with children so that our emergency doesn’t become theirs.
Gottman’s ratio is a simple way to help stop the cycle. So next time Johnny annoys you, stop and breathe and ask yourself – is my one irritated word worth the five strokes I’m going to have to give him to make it up? Then tell Johnny what the rules are, or what he must do – but without stress. He’ll know the difference.
Growth requires challenge, and stress is an inherent part of life. But it has to be the right amount. And for the right reasons.