(In recent conversations, Ajijic resident Robert Kleffel has offered some useful insights regarding relationships, which I asked him to share with you here.—James Tipton)
Most of us agree that having good health is critical for a sense of well-being. The second most important component in our lives is having good relationships with our friends and family. In the past 20 years, the science of Evolutionary Biology has explored how important relationships are in our lives. The basic idea here is that people who have strong relationships have a better chance of survival. Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans who did not have strong relationships were eliminated from the gene pool. Those who remained have a propensity, built into their genes, into their DNA, to develop useful relationships. Philosophers, thinkers and gurus have expressed thoughts on how to develop and maintain these relationships.
We have further evidence of how important relationships are when we realize that relationships form the basis of almost all literature, art, music, plays and operas. What is clear from all of these forms of expression is that relationships are problematic. What is it that causes such difficulty in developing and maintaining good relationships?
One problem is status. In the pre-civilization eras, humans survived and prospered not only by having close relationships but also by having high status. Tribal chiefs, expert hunters, and even craftsmen had high status, thus giving them control over others; and when trouble came they were the survivors who were still around to propagate the species.
Gaining high status, however, can be destructive to relationships. Politicians, businessmen and the wealthy use other people to gain their status that allows them to control others. In a book entitled The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, the author illustrates how most people spend a lot of time propping up their status. A local example is the “border promotion” phenomenon. We tend to exaggerate our importance, our accomplishments, our contacts and our wealth in the hope that this will improve our status. Another form of status enhancement is to tear down other people’s status in the hope that we will stand out. Put-downs and malicious gossip cause great harm to others and are destructive to relationships.
There is a true sense in which our behavior is being directed by our evolutionary development. What is very interesting is that we are unaware that we are being directed. The classic example is our desire for sex. Very few people have sex for the purpose of having children. In fact, having children is usually the last thing that they want. But evolution’s plan is to get females pregnant to insure the survival of the species. In relationships, evolutionary imperatives are in conflict with what is best for relationships. For example, the evolutionary imperative to gain high status often comes into conflict with trusting relationships. When we tear down others, we are not often aware of why we do it. “The devil made us do it.”
In the case of sexual intercourse, our bodies give us the pleasure of the big “O.” In good relationships, superior in many ways to the evolution-driven sexual intercourse, we get a relaxing sense of well-being that contributes to our happiness. Studies have shown that people who have strong trusting relationships are healthier, live longer and are happier. Studies at the University of California show that thanking, forgiving and giving to others build strong relationships.
If we are aware that our evolutionary imperatives are trying to get us to do things that are destructive to quality relationships, we may be able to stop the “devil” within us. One of the best-known quotes from the Bible and—in actual practice—most ignored is: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” This is a simple and sound formula for maintaining strong healthy relationships, and strong relationships are the key to your personal happiness.