Ubuntu— ‘A person is a person through other people’: Human relationships and emotional wellbeing

In 1938, researchers from Harvard University started the longest running longitudinal study of human development which culminated in the publication of a book in 2012,titled ‘Triumphs of Experience’. It tried to explore what makes people happy and to monitor trends over time, by looking at several factors such as physical health, career progress, marriage, social life, wealth, status, level of intelligence e.t.c. The study concluded that happiness and emotional wellbeing came from enjoying satisfying human relationships. Happiness and emotional stability DID NOT come from fame, wealth or hardwork.

Interpersonal relationships is a core attribute of our shared humanity. And regardless of our outward veneer of sophistry; level of education; ethnicity or race; religion; socio-economic status; rural or cosmopolitan life…..in reality, we are all fundamentally the same – human beings. We all desire to be happy, to be respected, to love and be loved, to feel that our life has some meaning, to be valued and appreciated. We all like to be treated with respect and for others to be nice to us….and we feel good when we experience such positive interactions. Would we not be happy if people meet you at work with a pleasant smile and asked after our wellbeing? Or when someone pays you a compliment on your appearance, or something good you have done recently? Or when you are appreciated for putting in a lot of hardwork at the office or in your home? But do we care to do likewise? Why do we find it so difficult to invest in relationships, though we all would like to be recipients of good relationships ourselves?

Relationship is not about the number of friends you have, or whether you are married or not. It is about the quality of the interactions you have with the people around you: with your spouse and children if married; with a significant other – if in a relationship; with close friends; with family; with colleagues at work; with neighbours e.t.c. The reality is that good relationship contrary to the myth of simple chemistry, is hardly ever a spontaneous occurrence. Even when the attraction is spontaneous or the first interaction was pleasant, it is heavy-lifting and hardwork to invest in sustaining good relationships. It is tough but it is an investment we all should make. Because, enjoying good relationship helps us to live longer, healthier and happier lives. The evidence is clear on this fact.

But then, why should you care? Why bother to greet your neighbour? Why lift a finger to be nice to a colleague at work? Or to a random stranger on the street? Or to family members? Not forgetting the most important people we take for granted all of the time: your spouse and children?

Because, when you invest in your close relationships and nurture them into positive and high quality interactions, you will then have a fallback safety net for yourself – during your low moments. Having a shoulder to lean on, a comforting hand or some encouragement may be all you need during periods of stress and emotional challenges. And it is not possible to go through life without having trying periods. So essentially, no human being can successfully be an island, no matter how brilliant, handsome/beautiful, rich and famous or powerful you are. This is why, nurturing human relationships is called an investment. It is in your enlightened self-interest because it is the deposit that you invest, that you will draw down on, when you fall on tough times.

What if I really don’t care? Studies have shown that individuals who lack close, supportive and nurturing relationships have a higher risk of being depressed, turning to substance abuse, being irritable and unhappy as well as at higher risk of developing hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. They may be very successful and high-achieving but miserable and unhappy in their personal life. So many rich and famous people are extremely unhappy on this count.

So, our collective humanity, happiness and emotional well-being can only truly be achieved through an appreciation of our shared humanity and inter-dependent nature. Whether we are transient neighbours in a public bus, train or on an airplane; or we are physical neighbours living on the same street or working in the same office; or as family living together under one roof; we need to invest in one other’s emotional wellbeing.

Our African heritage emphasises these attributes of communal existence and caring for one another. We should strive to cherish and uphold these values. The foundation of our happiness and emotional well-being lies in the quality of our human relationships. This is especially salient as we wind down 2021 and prepare to usher in 2022. The ball is in our court to make a conscious effort to be nice to family, friends, colleagues and even strangers.

Of course, we can also choose not to bother.


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