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Dr. Xavier Amador Headshot

PBS' 'This Emotional Life': Relationships Of Mutual Giving

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On July 4th, 1776, the founding fathers of our country proclaimed that each of us has the right to the pursuit of happiness. In doing so, they echoed a timeless psychological truth that has been voiced by philosophers and poets for thousands of years and tested more recently in psychologists' laboratories: to achieve lasting happiness we need relationships with others that are based on mutual giving.

As a psychologist I often thought that the end of the Declaration of Independence was ironic. Following a long list of reasons for why "in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the... bands which have connected them with another" is an oath to form relationships based on giving what is most dear." And for the support of this Declaration ... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

As a psychologist who is also a psychotherapist and scientist I have studied the brain, consciousness, several serious mental illnesses and dysfunctional relationships. I have also written a number of books. One unifying truth runs through all my work (though until recently I never consciously realized it): Relationships are the key to sustained happiness. Yes I can be happy when I cast off the lines holding me to the dock and set my sails to the wind. I love to sail and have done so alone countless times. But soon I start missing people and long to share the experience with them. I have learned something about myself over the years -- I don't love sailing nearly as much as I love sharing the experience with others. When I see it through their eyes, when we share the memory years later, I feel a lasting happiness that surpasses anything I have experienced sailing alone.

Early in its development I was asked by the producers of the PBS Program "This Emotional Life" to consult with them about their examination of human emotions. One thing I recall saying to them at the outset was that our species evolved to feel a wide range of emotions-including some negative emotions--that served to connect us to one another. I remember one producer being surprised when I said this. She smartly asked "How can depression or anxiety help propagate our species?" She rightly pointed out that in one of my books I cite research showing the high risk of suicide among persons with untreated depression and shorter life spans in general because of early death from cardiac disease. But she was talking about the diagnosis of depression, or "clinical depression", which is an illness involving more symptoms than just a sad or blue mood. My comment was aimed at everyday episodes of depressed mood which, I argued, are normal and exist for a reason. They cause us to connect. When we are sad, people reach out to us and we feel the desire to be held, cared for, loved. Anxiety often has the same effect. And when we come together we can then pursue common causes such as the search for food, creating shelter, defense against predators -- our genes survive and are passed on to the next generation.

A year or so after this discussion the producers asked me if it would be possible to film me doing couples' therapy. I said yes and together we found a courageous couple willing to work with me, on camera, to mend their troubled marriage. At first, their depression, anxiety and anger at each other seemed too extreme and complex for me to know where to start. Monica was enraged with her husband Phil who, after her tirades, escaped into silence and ineffective platitudes such as, "We have four children together, I love this woman and I will do anything it takes to make this work." To which she responded: "See! He's just trying to sweep it all under the rug again!" As their sessions unfolded the underlying cause of Monica's anger and anxiety was revealed.

At first this merely paved the way for a long list of grievances that, like those listed in the Declaration of Independence against the King of England -- a Tyrant by the colonists' account -- seemed insurmountable and destined to severe the ties that held this couple together. We were stalled and not making progress until I began to search, with their help, for the bonds that held Monica and Phil together. One simple question started the ball rolling: "Can you tell me what first attracted you to one another?" and other questions like: "What is it that you get from each other?" helped them to reconnect to the ways in which they made each other happy. Until they could do this, they had little motivation to figure out how they had each contributed to the problems they were having much less how they could possibly change. However, once the changes started they took on a distinct theme: Monica and Phil, realizing they could not change the other person, started asking themselves "what can I give that would help? With each simple act of giving (Phil taking his wife out on a weekly date; Monica listening to her husband's feelings and reflecting back her understanding -- even when she did not always agree he should feel the way he felt; and other small acts of empathy, affection and love) their frowns, eye-rolling, angry jabs and tears turned to smiles, hugs and laughter.

I have a friend who, when he reads this, will likely tell me it all sounds a bit too warm and fuzzy and like psycho-babble BS (he's never been to therapy and I can see why). He's a very happy man. He has close friendships, a trusting and joyful relationship with his wife and people at work he greatly enjoys. For those of you who need more than anecdotal evidence, there is plenty. In several of my books* I cite the psychological research that backs up my main point. The founding Fathers had it right. To successfully pursue happiness we need to give to one another. When we give, we usually -- not always, but far more often than not -- get back what we gave and much more.

*When Someone You Love is Depressed, Free Press, 1996; Being Single in a Couples' World, Fireside, 1998; I'm Right You're Wrong, Now What?, Hyperion, 2008; and "I'm Not Sick, I Don't Need Help!, Vida Press, 2010

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