Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
Kindness matters most
Data from "the most comprehensive study" in history on what makes a happy marriage. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I’ll have some more interesting data from the Reader Happiness Survey to share tomorrow on the correlation between self-reported income and happiness—complete with graphs, charts, and wry commentary from your humble newsletter writer.
But, before we get there, I’d like to share a study I read about, in light of two things that we’ve seen so far from our readers’ replies:
The correlation between number of good friends that people reported, and their self-reported happiness. (Link)
The fact that marital status correlated to happiness as follows:
Those who were married reported being happiest;
Followed by those who had been widowed;
Followed by those who were divorced;
Followed by those who had never been married. (Link)
By the way, there were exceptions to the rule, and none of this is a value judgment on my part. If people are happy with a smaller number of good friends, or content in their single life, then I’m very happy for them. This is just data, not a prediction.
That said, all this data on relationships and happiness reminded me quickly of “the most comprehensive study” of marriage happiness to date (as described by the university that sponsored it), which suggested that a single characteristic in marriage relationships leads most often to happiness.
The attribute? Kindness.
Writing in the Journal of Research in Personality, Bill Chopik, associate professor of psychology and director of the Close Relationships Lab at Michigan State University, combed through data on 2,500 long-term married couples (20+ years).
The couples had been asked to reveal the degree to which they believed the following five attributes applied to them:
Extraversion. ("I am outgoing and sociable.")
Agreeableness. ("I am considerate and kind to almost everyone.")
Conscientiousness. ("I do a thorough job.")
Emotional instability. ("I worry a lot.")
Openness to experience. ("I am original and come up with new ideas.")
Across the board, Chopik reported, couples who reported higher levels of agreeableness (No. 2) and lower levels of emotional instability (No. 4) also reported being happier with their relationships.
Other questions about whether couples had common interests or personalities didn't have very much effect on happiness at all. (Colloquially, I suspect we all know some couples that seem to get along very well, but otherwise seem to have nothing in common.)
"People invest a lot in finding someone who's compatible, but our research says that may not be the 'end-all, be-all,'" Chopik explained. "Instead, people may want to ask, 'Are they a nice person?' 'Do they have a lot of anxiety?' Those things matter way more."
OK, so perhaps if you're dating or on the lookout for a partner, you might file away the advice: Agreeableness and stability matter, along with whatever other attributes you find attractive.
But what if you're already in a marriage or other serious relationship? What if you realize that you and your partner aren't living up to the kindness and agreeableness standard?
This goes beyond the scope of Chopik's work, but thankfully there are many other sources to take guidance and inspiration from. I'd point to the work of psychologists Julie and John Gottman, for example, a husband-and-wife team who have spent years studying the same question.
The Gottmans argue that personal relationships are made up of an infinite number of small interactions, and that between couples, most interactions can be seen as "bids for attention" that are intended to inspire "micro-behaviors."
Couples "bid for attention" all the time: when they start a conversation, when they lean in for intimacy, and when they propose ideas or ask for opinions.
Every such bid for attention is thus an invitation to "turn in," meaning to respond with warmth and interest, which in practice means actively listening with empathy.
One Gottman-trained psychologist estimates that happy couples "turn in" 86 percent of the time, while miserably married couples do it about one-third of the time.
I know this sounds simple. It is—although it's not always easy to do in practice. But it's a good three-point plan to try to keep top of mind.
Step 1: Listen for bids for attention, and try to turn in. Respond to your partner with interest. (By the way, note to my wife: Thank you, honey, for “turning in” when I told you what I was writing about here last night, and you listened with interest.)
Step 2: If you can't turn in—nobody can all the time; otherwise we'd have no time for anything else—make clear that you want to. ("I'm interested to hear, honey, but can we talk about this later?")
Step 3: When you screw up—and you will—and you realize it, apologize for doing so.
At the end, what do you call someone who pays attention like this, lets you know they care about you, and apologizes when they mess up? I think we call that person "agreeable" or "kind."
And just maybe, if Chopik and his team are right, it sounds like we also call them a person in a happy relationship.
7 other things worth knowing today
The White House dropped the nationwide mask requirement on air travel, after a federal district judge in Florida ruled the CDC had exceeded its authority in installing it. All of the Big 4 U.S. airlines (Delta, American, Southwest and United) said they'll no longer require them. I have a nuanced and probably not very popular view on this:
As a passenger, I think it's reasonable to not require masks on planes (to make it even more nuanced, however, this is despite the fact that I will probably still wear one voluntarily, on my next trip).
However, as a lawyer, I also think it's insanely dangerous for the Biden administration to simply give up on the mandate after losing at the district court level, without even bothering to appeal. I invite your replies, btw. (Dallas News)
Russian forces launched an attack on eastern Ukraine Monday, attempting to break through Ukrainian lines in the Donbas area, the secretary of Ukraine’s defense council said. “We can now say that Russian forces have started the battle of the Donbas, for which they have long prepared,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address Monday. (NY Post)
Russian state TV broadcast a video Monday of what it described as "Britons" captured fighting for Ukraine demanding that Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiate their release. Separately, Malcom Nance, an MSNBC analyst and U.S. Navy intelligence veteran reported that he's "done talking," and has joined Ukraine's foreign legion. (NDTV, Denver Gazette)
As we mark Tax Day in the United States (yesterday for most Americans), did you know that all federal tax returns used to be largely public records? As you can imagine, the richest Americans—like J.D. Rockefeller, who paid $7.4 million in taxes in 1924—weren't too thrilled about this, and they successfully lobbied for the supposedly sacrosanct treatment of tax returns we have today. (WashPost)
Workers at the Apple store in New York's Grand Central Terminal have taken the first steps to form a union. The organizers call themselves the Fruit Stand Workers United (cute) and have launched a website announcing the effort and to lobby for better pay and working conditions. If successful, they’d be the first Apple employees to unionize. (CBS News)
Dolly Parton revealed the worst career advice she ever got—and why she ignored it. (“The main advice that people wanted to give me was to change my look – to go simpler with my hair and the way that I dress, not to look so cheap, nobody was ever going to take me seriously they would say.") (CNBC)
Retirement idea: Portugal. From the WSJ: The number of U.S. residents in Portugal climbed by 45% last year to 6,921 and has almost tripled in the past decade. Many are drawn by a low cost of living, healthcare, a sunny climate, tax incentives and because Portugal’s resident visa requires less income than many other countries in Europe. (If your spouse raises this idea, remember to turn in before replying.) (WSJ)