LOS ANGELES — March 9th, 2011 - Family, friends, lovers: Our greatest source of happiness lies in the people around us. We all want to live happily ever after; to experience more pleasure than pain; more delight than despair; more joy than sorrow. But how can we do it? Science suggests the answer lies right in front of us, in the success of our social relationships.
In New York City’s Grand Central Terminal every day thousands of people walk, weave and run across its bustling concourse without bumping into each other. They sense where others are going, and move to let them get there. It’s a masterpiece of human choreography. What does this have to do with relationships? The skills that allow us to navigate a crowded train station are exactly the same skills that allow us to navigate the complex world of social relationships. And as scientists now know, successful social relationships more than any other factor, are the key to human happiness.
All of our relationships start with our very first. Human babies can’t walk or run. They can’t hunt or hide. They can’t find food or shelter. But none of that matters because they know how to get others to do everything for them. They smile once and we’re hooked in for life. For more than half a century scientists have been studying how this happens, how children form bonds with their caregivers. The process is called attachment. Much of what is known about attachment comes from studies of children for whom the process of attachment has gone terribly wrong.
In a now famous experiment psychologist Harry Harlow took newborn rhesus monkeys away from their mothers, and allowed them to choose between two artificial mothers. One made of wire and with food, provided no comfort. The other, covered in cloth, provided some comfort but no food. Time and again the baby monkeys chose the cloth mother over the wire mother, suggesting that even a little bit of soft comfort was more important to them than food. This simple basic reaction led them to believe that we can define and measure what had previously been undefinable and unmeasurable… a baby’s love for its mother.
As the baby monkeys began to grow up, Harlow began to notice something else. The monkeys experienced a wide range of social and emotional problems from aggressive outbursts to uncontrollable fear, all because they hadn’t been loved. It was a dramatic, even horrible experiment. But Harlow wanted to show that you can take care of a monkey’s every physical need, but if you deprived it of love, you could destroy its life. This research lays much of the foundation in explaining behavioral problems, especially in unwanted or abandoned children.
It’s not just about food, water and shelter. A basic need for human beings is love, companionship, and close relationships.
Harlow’s experiments show that a failure to bond has dire consequences. Researchers have recently learned that a hormone called oxytocin plays an important role in social relationships. It is a hormone that allows the brain to form close relationships and allows an individual to feel a sense of calm and comfort when close to somebody they care for. The key behind the oxytocin is that the process is about reward.
Love can be a lot like a drug. It’s something we crave and when we take it, it results in pleasurable rewarding feeling. The question then is, if your early relationships were disrupted, do social relationships have the same reward?
Studies to some extent suggest that a child’s brain is molded by love; that we are in a very real sense, wired to connect.
Attachment doesn’t just affect a child’s biology. It’s a two-way street. Just as children’s brains are affected by the presence of their parents, so too, are parent’s brains affected by the presence of their child. Doctors took photographs of babies in various emotional states, and then studied the brain activity of their mothers as the images were replayed. When the mother watched her child smile, certain parts of her brain were activated, the same parts that are activated when people think about food or sex.
Indeed human beings are wired to connect, and many things determine how well we can do this; our earliest experiences, our temperaments, the circumstances of our lives. But fortunately none of these things in isolation seal our fate. There is evidence to suggest that even in the most extreme circumstances the capacity to love and connect with others can develop. Love is a drug that can melt years of neglect. Still widely available, it hasn’t yet been banned nor is it taxed. In fact, in this lean economy it’s a free and safe drug the whole family can enjoy. Why not try a little?
Related story by Sri: Gross National Happiness’- A Better Indicator of National Well-Being
Sri Keshava is a holistic entrepreneur who has made her passions, her business. She is the author of Gurus, Rock Stars & the Men In Between (a memoir from monk to punk diva in two seminal spiritual rock bands), co-director of Taal Dance Company, licensed real estate agent with a penchant for green, host of Gorgeous Green Homes and contributor to wellness and investment journals.
Adam is a Reiki Master, certified Health and Lifestyle counselor, Intrinsic Coach, Licensed Massage Therapist, 20 year practicing bramana initiated Bhakti Yogi, Spiritual advisor, visionary, jock and veteran of the “hardcore punk scene” all rolled into one. His clients have included celebrities, politicians, professional atheletes, and professional sport team owners. Adam is the founder of Omkara World and produced the mind/body fitness DVD “Intelligent Fitness.”
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