Relational Fitness: The Secret to Happiness

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“Happy are those who work for peace; because God will call them his children!” – Jesus of Nazareth (Matt. 5:9, The Good News Translation)
The desire to live a happy, successful life seems hardwired into our brains. So much so that it is even enshrined in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Even more, the idea of human happiness takes a central part in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, at least in the eyes of some biblical translators.

But what is happiness, and how can we achieve it? According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, happiness relates to a state of well-being and contentment characterized by a pleasurable or satisfying experience. Psychologist and researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that happiness maps to an experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being stemming from a sense that life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. More importantly, this sense of well-being is connected to participation in social groups such as families and close friendships. In other words, good relationships are essential to true happiness and fulfillment.

As you may already know, relationships are an extension of what we do at Science for the Church. Why? Because we have learned that relationships open the door to personal and organizational well-being, a greater sense of connectedness, and fulfillment.

Cultivating Better Relationships

Harvard University’s Study of Adult Development has uncovered the secret to a good life: cultivating better relationships. This 85-year-long longitudinal study has demonstrated a strong correlation between happiness and well-being and the development of deep, strong relationships. Relationships help us flourish by providing a safe and secure environment, enhancing our well-being by connecting us with others, and giving us fulfillment by helping us understand our place in a greater social structure.

Authors Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz use Harvard’s study to suggest some proactive ways to cultivate better relationships.

  • First, master the skill of evaluating your relational fitness. As life changes, we outgrow some relationships, and others simply fade into the background of our busy lives. To cultivate better relationships, we evaluate our needs and remain proactive in reaching out to those who invigorate us and bring us happiness and fulfillment.
  • Second, consider your changing needs. As life goes on, we move beyond egocentric pursuits to benefit our family and social structures. Harvard’s study suggests that the “happiest and most satisfied adults” are those who look beyond themselves to work at benefiting the world.
  • Third, we prioritize relationships by being present. We take time to be present (i.e., learning how to listen, express interest, and show affection) with our friends and to cultivate curiosity about other people into new and unexpected points of connection.
  • Fourth, we reflect. The key here is that when problems arise, instead of our usual responses, we slow down and consider purposeful responses that align with the value of relationships.
  • Lastly, we learn the art of telling others how much they matter. One of the best tools at our disposal in cultivating better relationships is letting people know how much they mean to us. Taking the time to call them or spend time with them over a cup of coffee will strengthen our connections and develop our own deep sense of well-being.

  • In “The Greatest of These Is…,” Drew unpacks how the church benefits when clergy and scientists are open to a relational approach.
  • In a recent study, Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, underscores the dangers of loneliness and isolation, reminding us about the healing effects of social connection and community.
  • Check out David Brooks’ new book, “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing and Being Deeply Seen,” for more insight on how to foster deeper connections at home, work, and life.

The Key to a Happy Life

In a sense, Harvard’s findings should not be surprising but reaffirming for Christians. A closer reading of scripture uncovers a significant similarity between Harvard’s study and God’s foundational design for relationships. From God’s declaration that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18) to the establishment of the church by Jesus, relationships are shown as fundamental to a believer’s fulfillment and happiness.

Returning to the opening verse—without trying to start a debate about the finer points of translating the Greek word makários as “blessed” or “happy”—the truth is that the Beatitudes and the subsequent points made by Jesus in Matthew 5 center on the essence of this true happiness and fulfillment expressed throughout the pages of scripture. What am I talking about? True happiness stems from being connected to God and to my neighbor.

Try reading the ideas presented by Matthew anew through the lens of the science of happiness. We are happy when we tap into the relational reality of God’s kingdom, when we allow others to comfort us, when we are humbled by God’s eternal promises, when we seek to fulfill God’s will, when we are merciful to others, when we see his image imprinted in our neighbor, when we strive for peace, when we side with those who are persecuted, and when we are willing to become kingdom-oriented people. In other words, the relational aspects of the Beatitudes are the axis of true happiness.

Our ability to connect with God and with others affects us in physical and emotional ways. Have you ever noticed how you feel when you enter a circle of like-minded people and connect with them? Our willingness to embrace kingdom values by engaging with our neighbors helps us see the world in new and unexpected ways. It reinvigorates us, gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and strengthens our resolve to relational fitness. Thus, our best interest is to develop new ways to engage those around us.

Waldinger and Schulz remind us that developing and nurturing relationships is intentional and requires work. The recipe for true happiness requires a sprinkle of kindness, a measure of attention, a good amount of common interests, and plenty of respect. All these ingredients are essential to Christ’s formulation for true happiness, as explained in the Beatitudes. In Matt. 5:14, Jesus exhorts us to let the enlightening aspects of the kingdom shine through us so others can be drawn to him: “You are like light for the whole world.” Paradoxically, these words reverberate today reminding us to shine brightly in a dark world and help those enlightened by Christ to become partakers of God’s relational kingdom.

In Nobis Regnat Iesus,

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