In the high-tech world in which many of us work — for me, commercial AV and digital signage — we are inundated with technologies that attempt to tie us together. Can we all say IoT? We often, in conversations with colleagues, discuss these new tools. But, at some point, toward the end of the conversation, someone will invariably say, “Yes, but it is still a relationship business.” This is obviously their attempt to humanize things at a deeper, and perhaps more meaningful, level in the face of our digital — some might say “sterile” — transformation. I often ask myself if it really is still a relationship business. Is there data to support that being as effective as perhaps it once was?
Well, I ran across something that I feel compelled to share. It all begins with the search for happiness. Now, don’t start singing “Kumbaya” yet. Instead, just read on to see how it relates….
We all seek happiness, right? That invites the question of which ingredients go into achieving that goal. For many, it involves money, a successful career, a degree of status, and perhaps ease and leisure. What if I told you the scientific, data-driven answer to the search for happiness actually involves none of the above? Now, I know this might sound like one of those miracle pills or a sales pitch for a motivational seminar. However, I assure you, it is not. What I ran across (by accident) was an 85-year investigation (yes, 85 years and still ongoing!) from the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Unsurprisingly, this is the world’s longest scientific study on the subject. I want to share with those of us in AV the importance of what it has found.
First, we’ll start with the methodology. The study began in 1938, with 724 original participants. It set out to discover what makes people thrive and attain a sense of happiness. That, however, is only the beginning of the story….
Some 85 years later, the study includes three generations and more than 1,300 descendants of the original participants. I’m not impressed by the numbers alone, however. I’m especially drawn to the socioeconomic cross section of participants and the depth of the research. Researchers follow each person from their teen years to old age, gathering everything from their exercise and drinking habits to their marital satisfaction and biggest worries.
Additionally, researchers regularly collect their health records for evidence of physical and mental well-being, and, periodically, they meet them face to face to observe their behavior and living conditions. Participants rate their lives by answering intensive questionnaires that examine whether they’re happy, if their life is meaningful and if they have a reason to get up in the morning. They undergo brain scans, blood tests and checks of stress-related hormones. As we used to say in describing an effort, “they didn’t miss a lick”!
What Was in Common?
From all this work, is there something the healthiest and happiest participants have in common? Dr. Robert Waldinger and Dr. Marc Schultz’s new book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, helps distill the answers. In their research, one factor — good relationships — stood above everything else. The data, collected over 85 years, showed that if you were to make one decision to ensure your own health and happiness it would be cultivating warm relationships. The co-authors write, “This is our greatest need: meaningful human connection.” Keep this in mind as I explain in more detail.
What follows are some key messages from the book. I feel they apply to all of us.
It’s important to have people to whom you can talk and on whom you can rely. In a recent interview, the co-authors explain, “Really, what you need is somebody in your life who you can call on. We think that everybody needs at least one person in their life who they feel is a safety net for them…who would have their back if they were really in trouble.” Data shows that people who don’t have that support can end up chronically stressed, a condition that has negative health implications.
The authors advise us not to underestimate the power of casual connections or exchanging little pleasantries with a stranger. Research has found these interactions give us little “hits” of well-being. Something about getting positive responses from someone else makes us feel good. Even so, we often think they “don’t really matter,” and we ignore that little bit of well-being we get.
A Good Life is Complicated
The authors point out that a good life is a complicated one. Life is not about 100% leisure and relaxation. Research shows the people who are the happiest and have the greatest sense of well-being are those who find life brings challenges that they can meet. As the authors observe, the greatest satisfaction often comes from doing hard things, such as raising children or starting a business. When our life brings challenges that are interesting — challenges that allow us to feel like we’ve accomplished something — it is very satisfying.” According to Waldinger, the research clearly shows that wealth and privilege don’t buy you happiness.
The authors are quick to point out that nobody is happy all the time — and that’s OK. According to Waldinger, if you’re not happy all the time, it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong — you’re just experiencing the truth of being alive. He adds that, yes, for sure, we can improve our lives and improve our happiness. But we oughtn’t to expect ourselves always to be happy. It’s important to remember, he says, that everyone faces stress and challenges. So, even though it seems like other people have it all figured out and are happy all the time, that simply is not true.
It’s a great idea to cultivate warm relationships at work. For many people, work occupies more of their waking hours than anything else does. That means work relationships are important, the Harvard study has found. According to Waldinger, really good research backs up this conclusion, showing that having a personal friend at work makes a huge difference in our well-being.
Never Too Late
The research shows that it’s never too late to be happy. The study has followed people for 85 years, which means researchers have watched thousands of lives unfold from adolescence to old age. As Waldinger describes the findings, the researchers came to understand that it’s never too late. Some people thought they were no good at relationships…thought they’d always be alone. Then, when they least expected it, they would find a new group of friends that they never had before, or they would find love. Sometimes, people in their 60s, 70s or 80s would find these things for the very first time. So, the message that comes from the research is clear, Waldinger says: “If you think it’s too late for you to have better relationships, think again!”
Thus, exhaustive research shows the number-one way to achieve happiness is to cultivate relationships. The meaning for us personally seems obvious. However, let’s try to tie this together with our business lives. Think about your business happiness and how relationships apply to it. There are various types of relationships (e.g., peer to peer, employee to manager, employee to customer). As with interpersonal relationships, business relationships require continual maintenance. Mutual benefit (think win/win) and ongoing communication are important ingredients to success. By the way, effective and meaningful communication does not mean a quarterly email blast!
Pinpoint Your Best
Of course, it’s impossible to have weekly or monthly conversations with all your contacts. Instead, you should focus on those you consider valuable. Pinpoint your best clients, partners and vendors; then, continually check up on them. Express your interest in their business and let them know that you’re thinking about them and that you’re there to help. If you want to keep the relationship alive, make this outreach routine. If you let too much time go by, your contact — whenever it comes — will seem less genuine. By then, what might have been a solid relationship will have dissipated. Think “out of sight, out of mind.”
With 70% of sales happening before (or in spite of) a salesperson getting involved, relationships take on a new meaning. I, like many, literally know thousands of people…but only a few hundred fit into true, ongoing relationships. I can already hear the comments from the naysayers that “this relationship stuff” takes too much time. After all, you react to what is on your plate day to day, and that is all you can do, right? I suggest — and the research backs me up — that if you do not invest time in true relationships and continually maintain them people will gravitate to people who are willing to participate in a win/win manner that will lead to business happiness.
Is our business a relationship business? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, more than ever before!
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