What makes a happy couple, a happy family, or a happy workplace?

December 6, 2020

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What makes a happy couple, a happy family, or a happy workplace?

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in 1878 in the opening lines of Anna Karenina. Turns out the Russian author was onto something.

Cohesive families (and indeed cohesive workplaces) seem to share a few critical traits. Being emotionally flexible may be one of the most important factors when it comes to longevity and overall health of your romantic, familial and workplace relationships.

That’s the finding of a new meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, which statistically combined the results of 174 separate studies that had looked at the role of acceptance, mindfulness, and emotion regulation.

The researchers’ aim was to clarify how mindful flexibility on the one hand, and inattentive, mindless, and rigid inflexibility on the other, were linked to the dynamics within families and romantic relationships.

What the researchers say: “Put simply,” says the lead author, “this meta-analysis underscores that being mindful and emotionally flexible in tough and challenging situations not only improves the lives of individuals, it might also strengthen and enrich their close relationships.”

Psychological flexibility is defined as a set of skills that people use when they’re presented with difficult or challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences. Such skills encompass:

  • Being open to experiences—both good and bad—and accepting them no matter how challenging or difficult they might be
  • Having a mindful attentive awareness of the present moment throughout day-to-day life
  • Experiencing thoughts and feelings without obsessively clinging to them
  • Maintaining a broader perspective, even in the midst of difficult thoughts and feelings
  • Learning to actively maintain contact with our deeper values, no matter how stressful or chaotic each day is
  • Continuing to take steps toward a goal, even in the face of difficult experiences and setbacks

The opposite—psychological inflexibility—describes six specific behaviors, including:

  • Actively avoiding difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences
  • Going through daily life in a distracted and inattentive manner
  • Getting stuck in difficult thoughts and feelings
  • Seeing difficult thoughts and feelings as a personal reflection and feeling judged or shameful for having them
  • Losing track of deeper priorities within the stress and chaos of day-to-day life
  • Getting derailed easily by setbacks or difficult experiences, resulting in being unable to take steps toward deeper goals

Psychologists consider the rigid and inflexible responses to difficult or challenging experiences dysfunctional, ultimately contributing to, and exacerbating, a person’s psychopathology.

Through their analysis, the researchers discovered that within families, higher levels of various forms of parental psychological flexibility were linked to:

  • Greater use of adaptive parenting (or, I would add, managing) strategies
  • Fewer incidents of lax, harsh, and negative parenting strategies
  • Lower perceived parenting stress or burden
  • Greater family cohesion
  • Lower child distress (or reduced employee stress)

Within romantic relationships, higher levels of various forms of psychological inflexibility were linked to:

  • Lower relationship satisfaction for themselves and their partners
  • Lower sexual satisfaction
  • Lower emotional supportiveness
  • Greater negative conflict, physical aggression, attachment anxiety, and attachment avoidance

The results suggest that psychological flexibility and inflexibility may play key roles in both couples and families in shaping how individuals interact with the people closest to them, the researchers write.

So, what? I’m not sure that this study gives us anything really novel—except the researchers’ insight, buried in the study details, that people who strive for mindful flexibility may not need the services of a therapist to fix their relationship. Maybe, but I’m not sure about that.

What struck me most of all about the study was the similarity between dysfunctional versus functional families and dysfunctional versus dysfunctional organizations. Over the last 10 years (pre-COVID) work stress increased by over 200 percent. Family stress also increased over the period but not nearly to the same extent, and much of that rise was caused by work stressors experienced by the adults in the family.

The need for mindful flexibility is equally valid in the work relationships as in the home. The mind doesn’t distinguish between various kinds of relationships and the solution to relationship problems in one area can very largely be applied to the other.

The researchers inexplicably seem to ignore the fact that those suffering from depression or anxiety may not be able to exhibit the flexibility they say is best for the relationship. Recent pre-COVID research suggests that some (+/- 30%) of families have at least one depressed adult. During this time of plague—even in countries like Australia who seem to have successfully beaten the virus—the depression rate is probably considerably higher.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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