LoveAndLifeToolBox

The Single Biggest Happiness Predictor in Relationships

What might not be much of an “aha” moment for some, may be for others.  Can you guess what the “happiness predictor” is?

It is well known that part of happiness for people involve their satisfaction levels in intimate relationships.  But what if there was a single attribute that could predict whether the couple would ultimately be happy or frustrated?

A large research project (described by the university that sponsored it as the “most comprehensive study” of marriage happiness to date) says there is in fact one such single characteristic.  It’s more important than any of the other things we often think of in relationships–bigger than compatibility, growth, sexual attraction, intelligence, wisdom, or values.

The single attribute? Kindness.

There were other findings:

Five little questions

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).  His data source involved self-reported responses that the couples had given to the following five questions, which were used to evaluate their degree of aptitude in five dimensions:

  1. Extraversion. (“I am outgoing and sociable.”)
  2. Agreeableness. (“I am considerate and kind to almost everyone.”)
  3. Conscientiousness. (“I do a thorough job.”)
  4. Emotional stability. (“I worry a lot.”)
  5. Openness to experience. (“I am original and come up with new ideas.”)

Couples who reported higher levels of agreeableness and lower levels of emotional instability also reported being happier with their relationships.  And surprisingly, other questions about whether couples had common interests or similar personalities didn’t have very much effect on happiness at all.

“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.”

Bids for attention

Another researcher, John Gottman, PhD, who studies couples at his Seattle Love Lab has demonstrated that personal relationships are made up of an infinite number of small interactions.  Many interactions between couples can be seen as “bids for attention.”

  • 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 bid for attention is an invitation to “turn in,” meaning to respond with warmth and interest, which in practice means active listening and empathy.

Here’s a plan to try to keep bids of attention top of mind:

  • Step 1: Listen for bids for attention, and try to turn in. Respond to your partner with interest.
  • Step 2: If you can’t turn in, make clear that you want to. (“I want to hear about that but can we talk about it when I’m done with my project?”)
  • Step 3: If you miss a bid for connection, do your best to offer an apology.

Circling back to “kindness” being the number one predictor of happy relationships, it seems that couples who are aware and attentive to each other’s bids for attention are also practicing kindness while they do it.  They are letting each other know they care and apologize when they mess up!  With that underlying characteristic in place between them, they can more easily and naturally practice new habits, as needed.

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Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of LoveAndLifeToolbox.com with emotional and relationship health articles, guides, courses and other tools for individuals and couples. She is a frequent consultant for the media having appeared in CNN.com, HuffingtonPost.com, MensHealth.com and others. Lisa has a private practice in Marin County, CA and offers Emotional Health and Relationship Consultations via email, phone or video conference.