A while back a friend sent me a TED talk about a study on happiness. The results did not surprise me, but confirmed exactly what I’ve been pondering on for the past few years: relationships are what make us happy, their quality and quantity. I would add even more to that: relationships are what we are here on this Earth for.
This TED talk states at about six minutes in, “… Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” This comes as no surprise to me, but it seems to be a surprise to the cultural norm. We live in an ever more disconnected society. We are virtually connected and “friends” online, but severely individualistic, consumerist and anonymous as neighborhoods and communities. Pope Francis alerts us to our “virtual” and consumer society and to this becoming more and more disconnected and less and less relational as a common theme. Connecting simply over a meal or cultivating friendships are becoming lost arts and less frequent priorities.
I watched a popular movie the other day, The Intern, with Robert DeNiro, in which a clear theme was that your job brings you happiness. The main character was a widower, didn’t want to depend too much on his son, and so to “fill his void”, as he himself stated, he got a job. And he found happiness that way! How many people relentlessly change career paths and try to find fulfilment through their jobs? When really, according to this TED talk, relationships will make you happy and it’s not even your work relationships. In fact, the speaker states that the happiest people “actively worked to replace workmates with playmates”.
God is not one person, but three, the Holy Trinity. As a glance at Rublev’s Trinity Icon will show, God is a relationship. He made us to be in relationship with Him and with one another, to be part of the communion of saints. Sin is when we distance ourselves from Him or from our brothers. So it makes sense from a Christian worldview that relationships are what make you happy. Not only that, but loneliness kills the study says, more than tobacco. Good relationships protect our brains. In your 80s, people with good memories are sharper and longer.
However, not all relationships are good for you. It’s the quality of close relationships that matter. It’s that level of intimacy, of vulnerability, of being able to open up oneself to another and to the Other. This might have been easier 50 or 100 years ago, when family was still the nuclear cell of society, when extended family was more close-knit and when people lived more locally in neighborhoods and villages. Now it is easy to be anonymous or to create a fake life online. It is easier to be “globally connected” and not locally connected, which can make it harder to build true relationships. As Jesus teaches us time and time again, especially with the Eucharist, true communion and intimacy requires physical presence. That’s just how we are: we are human, physical creatures.
It is hard work to live in a way that fosters quality relationships but, as this TED talk reflects, it is worth it. The expression of “the work of tending to family and friends” is used in the talk and that is exactly what it is, work.
Maintaining an active prayer life and relationship with God is work. Finding time to be with Him physically, giving Him our time, showing our vulnerability in the sacrament of Reconciliation is hard work. Of course, it is worth it, to have a quality relationship with our Father.
Living out the primary relationship we’ve been called to in our vocation is hard work. If that vocation is marriage, making our relationship with our spouse number one priority, even above children and career, is difficult. Lifelong fidelity in any vocation doesn’t come at an easy price. But you will have a sharper memory in your 80s, says this TED talk!
Of course, tending to family and friends is much harder than secluding yourself in a comfort-filled, entertainment-overloaded house, but it is worth it. There are many ministries and online articles about creating community among families, about the value of meals together or about becoming a more relationship-based culture. I’ve heard that watching soap operas makes people feel happier because you feel as if your social circle has been broadened, as if those characters are you real friends.
As Catholics, let’s not let soap opera characters be our only friends. Let’s not let anyone die of loneliness, what Mother Teresa called the greatest poverty of the United States. We are a people of communion and of outreach. We are called to ever pursue our relationship with God, our maker, and of deeper communion with our brothers and sisters.