Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Building Better Relationships With Eric Barker
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 371 of Live Happy Now. This week, we’re talking about relationships, and you might be surprised to find out how little we actually know about them.
I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, I’m talking with bestselling author, Eric Barker, whose newest book Plays Well with Others, takes a deep dive into friendships, marital relationships, and every other kind of relationship to explore what we’re doing right, where we could improve, and how the pandemic has changed the way we look at our relationships. This is such an enlightening conversation that we all have plenty to learn from.
[00:00:40] PF: Eric, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:42] EB: It’s great to be here.
[00:00:43] PF: It is great to have you. You have a new book out called Plays Well with Others. I just told the listeners a little bit about it in the intro. This is about relationships, but it’s about all types. It’s not your typical relationship book. So starters, how long has it been in the works, and where did this idea come from?
[00:01:03] EB: Well, it’s been in the works. It was funny because my first book was basically looking at success and all the maxims that we had around success, and then looking at the science and testing them. So I thought, hey, for my second book, I’m going to look at the maxims around relationships like love conquers all, a friend in need is a friend indeed. So I’ll look at the social science, and I’ll test those maxims, and I thought that’d be pretty straightforward.
Well, two weeks after I closed the deal for my book, like California, where I live, locked down for the pandemic, and I realized, “Oh, geez. Relationships are going to be an even bigger issue than I thought. This isn’t just an abstract investigation. People are people are going to need this.” So I felt like this was really going to be something. I’ve personally struggled with relationships. I’m a pretty introverted guy and I’m not – It’s never been my specialty. So I was like, “Hey, this will be good for me to research. I’ll learn a lot.” Then I realized with the pandemic hitting that I wasn’t going to be the only one who might need some help here.
[00:02:02] PF: Yeah. The pandemic was such a game changer for many relationships. I know people who got married. I know people who got divorced. I knew people who wanted to kill their spouses and sometimes their children. It was just such a big game changer in relationships overall. So did that change how you were researching and writing the book as the pandemic evolved?
[00:02:24] EB: I mean, definitely, I started thinking about – Because most relationship books are generally very love-focused, and one of the things I write about in the friendship section of the book is that friendship is so powerful. I mean, you look at the research from Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman. Friendships make us happier than any other relationship, even more so than spouses. Even in a marriage or a partnership, the friendship is actually the most powerful part of that relationship.
Yet, as you kind of point to, friendships – If you’re having trouble with your marriage, you go to a marriage therapist. If your child’s having a problem, you go to a child therapist. If friendships having a – It’s like we don’t really have a kind of, “Oh, well. It’s going to die like a pet goldfish.” You’re just not – Yeah. It’s like, “Oh, well. Too bad. Better get a new one.” It’s like we don’t really give them the respect they need, and yet they make us happier than anything.
[00:03:18] PF: I’m so glad you bring that up because there are friendships that have ended in my life, and I’m kind of like I don’t even know what happened. Because of the way our world is, it seems awkward to be like, “Hey, can we go talk about this? Can we find out what this was all about?” That you’re right, we don’t do it. We’re just like, “Yeah, there goes another one,” and here’s hoping somebody else comes along. So why do we approach that so almost cavalierly when they are so important?
[00:03:46] EB: It’s a great point because the real issue here is that friendship is the one major relationship that basically doesn’t have any institution behind it. It doesn’t have a proverbial lobbying group. Somebody doesn’t stop being your boss because you stopped liking them. Someone doesn’t stop being your spouse because you stopped liking them. Someone’s certainly doesn’t stop being your four-year-old child because you stopped liking them.
But friends is 100% voluntary, and that means that the upkeep of that relationship has to be very proactive and very deliberate. If you don’t talk to your spouse for two months, expect divorce papers. If you don’t talk to your friends for two months, like there’s no lobbying group there. That’s the downside, the positive side, and this is the reason why friends make us happier than any other relationship is because it is 100% voluntary. You don’t have to. Because you don’t have to, that fragility of friendship means it’s pure. You’re only there because you like them, and they’re only there because they like you.
That’s why it comes up not only the health data – I’m sorry, the happiness data, but also the health data. When they did a broad study of both men and women, women who are dealing with breast cancer, a spouse had zero effect on health and happiness. A number of friends correlated with recovery, men recovering from a heart attack. Spouse had zero effect. Number of friends was strongly related to whether they came back. Friends are really, really important. Sadly, they don’t get enough respect.
[00:05:20] PF: No. Was it difficult to find research on that?
[00:05:23] EB: You don’t know how much you saying that means to me. I mean, because I’m sitting there and I’m like, “Oh. A friend in need, a friend indeed. That’d be a great maxim to explore. Oh, God.” I mean, no, you totally hit the nail on the head. There is more information on love and marriage. Just each chapter had its own challenges. Like love and marriage, it was sifting through the mountains and mountains and mountains of research studies.
Friendship was the exact opposite. It was like panning for gold. I mean, it was like I needed a Geiger counter, like trying to find real research, and it really hasn’t been done. Again, it’s reflective of that sad neglect. A friend is the relational term most used in the English language. In other words, we use the word friend more than mother, more than father, more than brother more than – The most used, and yet it gets so little respect. It’s crazy. Yes, it made my life very, very hard. But luckily, I did find plenty of research.
[00:06:23] PF: So basically, we’re saying to researchers out there, “Here’s your niche. Go figure this friendship thing out.”
[00:06:29] EB: We definitely need more help here. No doubt.
[00:06:32] PF: Well, so what should we be doing to improve our quality of friendships? Because clearly, we’re not going to go read a book on it, unless it’s yours. So what is it that we can do differently? Because, to your point, friendships are so important.
[00:06:48] EB: I mean, the thing here is it was really funny. 2,000 years ago, Aristotle defined a friend as another self, which is like a very heartwarming notion.
[00:06:58] PF: I like that.
[00:06:59] EB: Yeah. It took science about 2,000 years to catch up. But now, over 65 studies show that it’s like that’s actually pretty accurate. When you test people in an MRI, when you look, when people say their friends’ names in a brain scan, the areas of self-processing in the brain light up. If I ask you, “Is this trait, this quality, is this true of you or your best friend,” it will take you longer to respond than if I say, “Is this quality true of you or a stranger?”
The closer we are to someone, where close is actually very accurate, the more they blend. It’s like a Venn diagram. A friend is another you. It’s like they’re a part of you in the brain, and that’s what’s really so powerful, so wonderful about friends. Because if you think about it from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective, it’s like, “Hey, they don’t have my genes. From a biological point of view, why should I care?” That’s the fun little trick that our brain plays is we see our friends as part of us, and that leads to what do we need to do.
In the book, I go down the rabbit hole on Dale Carnegie’s book, How to win friends and influence people, which largely is very accurate. Social science has largely proved most of what he said is very accurate. The only one that was inaccurate was he said like to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think from their perspective. The research actually shows we are really terrible at that.
But overall, yeah, we correctly read the thoughts and feelings of strangers about 20% of the time. For friends, we hit 30%. Oh, yeah. For spouses, we only hit 35. So whatever you think is on your spouse’s mind, two-thirds of the time, you’re wrong.
[00:08:43] PF: So we need to stand down is what you’re saying.
[00:08:46] EB: We need to ask. We need to stop thinking that we’re mind readers because we’re really bad at it. But in terms of improving friendships, most of what Dale Carnegie recommends are good for the early parts of relationships, but it’s not good for those deep friendships. Creating another self, like Aristotle said, we need to focus on more costly methods. By costly, I mean time and vulnerability. We need to spend the time, and we need to really share things that might be a little bit scary to show people that they mean something to us. Those are the two big secrets to it. I can talk more about it, but those are the two big secrets.
[00:09:22] PF: But do you think the quality of our friendships increased or declined during the pandemic, during the lockdowns?
[00:09:29] EB: I think it inevitably declined because that issue of time is huge.
[00:09:34] PF: It seems, though, it would have done the opposite. I concur with you because I’ve – Just from talking with people and some of my own experiences, it seemed like that would have been the perfect time for us to really nurture and deepen our friendships.
[00:09:48] EB: I would love to think that was the case. I think for some people, that’s probably true. I think for other people, it was a very stressful time. We had a time we had a lot of transitions. All of a sudden, a lot of people were homeschooling. All of a sudden, a lot of people were trying to adapt to work from home. I think we got busier in a lot of ways. We got scared.
I think with a lot of that going on, it probably just distracted us, and I think a lot of people became much more reliant perhaps on social media or television or other things that aren’t as fulfilling. I think for our closest friends, maybe. But for those more tertiary, I think they may have got lost in the mix.
[00:10:31] PF: So is there a way for us to correct that? Do you offer tips on how to take those steps to deepen friendships?
[00:10:38] EB: I mean, first and foremost is those key things of time and vulnerability. Notre Dame did a study of eight million phone calls and basically saw that the people who talked to each other at least every two weeks over the course of the study, I think it was a year or more, they saw those were the relationships that were more likely to persist. Also, research shows that one of the biggest arguments that people get in with their friends is over time. Making time for one another is really tricky, especially in adulthood. Especially as we get to later years, we just get more responsibility.
Then the other thing is vulnerability, and here’s a point where I think the pandemic can actually help us, in the sense that we’ve all been through some difficulty here. We’ve all had some real challenges. I think some people might be reluctant to discuss that. They might be reluctant to acknowledge the difficulties they’ve had, being afraid, being scared, being alone. I think we’ve all felt it. It’s okay. It’s safe and to mention that, to discuss it.
By giving up a little bit, by showing vulnerability, we let people know that we trust them. The key to having people trust you is to first show the trust in them and to say it’s a safe place. By giving somebody something that could make you look bad, that could make you look weak, you’re saying, “I trust you.” You’re saying that, “This is important to me.” That trust in them usually makes them trust you more.
Vulnerability is critical not only for the relationship. Research has shown that, basically – Friendships go on. If there’s more small talk later in the relationship, that’s a negative. If we don’t open up, it increases the chance of minor illnesses, it increases the chance of a first heart attack, and it increases the chance that that heart attack will be lethal. We need to have a release valve. We need to be able to share things. If you can’t share the difficulties you’re going through with friends, then how good a relationship is it?
[00:12:36] PF: Yeah. That’s really great insight, and I think people will kind of take a step and go like, “You know what? I haven’t been doing that since 2020.”
[00:12:45] EB: For years now.
[00:12:46] PF: Yeah. Another thing that we saw, like loneliness was already epidemic before the pandemic, but it’s even worse now. But you – I found your research really interesting because you’re saying that lonely people actually spend as much time with others as non-lonely people. So can you talk about that, and tell us what the difference is?
[00:13:08] EB: This shocked the heck out of me.
[00:13:10] PF: I mean, that – I stopped. I just was like, “How? I can’t be reading that right.”
[00:13:15] EB: Well, I mean, what’s crazy is you hear that that can’t be possible. But the thing we forget is that loneliness is not the mathematical absence of a number of other people. Loneliness is a subjective feeling. Loneliness, because we have all – The great insight, wherever people go, that’s impossible. The thing I mentioned is have you ever felt lonely in a crowd? We all have.
I mean, hey, face-to-face contact is fantastic. I highly recommend it. Two thumbs up. But if it’s just the presence of other people, then we wouldn’t ever feel lonely in a crowd. But we do because loneliness isn’t just the absence of other people. It is a subjective feeling. It’s how you feel about your relationships.
Well, when I really dove deep into the data, Fay Alberti is a historian at the University of York, and what she found is before the 19th century, loneliness barely existed. Now, again, were people alone? Yes. Did people experience solitude? Yes. But the thing was we were tied into communities. People were strongly – They were part of their religion. They were part of their nation. They’re part of their tribe. They’re part of their group. They were part of a team. They had an extended family.
So you may have been alone, but that feeling of, “I’m a part of something. People care about me. I’m not with them right now, but they care about me,” that feeling was always there and it was – After the 19th century, the rise of individualism, which produced some very great things in many ways, but in other ways, we stopped feeling like we are part of a team, part of a tribe, part of a religion. Our brain says our brains – Loneliness is correlated with pretty much every negative health metric.
[00:15:04] PF: Right. Yeah. It’s worse than smoking now.
[00:15:07] EB: Exactly. What’s interesting, though, is, and this is quoting Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General the United States, solitude is a positive. So, again, we get to that subjectivity. Being by yourself is not necessarily good or bad in short periods. The issue is how do you feel about your relationships. If you feel good, “Hey, I’m traveling. I’m not with my family right now. I’m not with my group right now. But I know people love and care about me,” that’s more like solitude.
But when you feel, even if you’re close to people, “But these people don’t care about me. These people don’t know me. I don’t matter to them,” that’s loneliness, and that can happen even when people are there.
[00:15:48] PF: So knowing how bad loneliness is both for our emotional and our physical health, what should we be doing differently if we are experiencing loneliness?
[00:15:58] EB: That’s the interesting part is the knee-jerk response, and it’s not wrong. But the knee-jerk response is, “Oh, spend more time with other people.” Hey, you could certainly do a lot worse. But what’s really important there is feeling a part of something.
There was some – Another really interesting piece of research I found was that if you have five friends, that’s above average, five close friends, that’s really good. You know what’s even better? Five friends who all know each other. Same number of friends but five friends – If it’s like hub and spoke where you’re the center, and you’re the only line connecting to each one of those friends versus a community. I have five friends, but all those five friends know each other.
Now, all of a sudden, everybody’s looking out for everybody. Everybody’s talking to everybody. Hey, Eric. You know what? One friend says, “I’m a little worried about Eric. He’s not doing so well.” The other four friends say, “Hey, you know what? They’re right. They can coordinate. They can work together.” There’s more support. There’s more caring. There’s more thought and involvement than five separate friends.
So it’s one thing to say spend more time with people, which like I said, is very – It’s a good idea. But it’s having a feeling of community, of connection, taking those friends and introducing themselves to one another, joining a group, going to your local church or synagogue, going to any kind of a movement or organization, volunteering, doing something where you feel like you’re a part of something, you’re contributing to something, people would miss you, you add value, you are needed and necessary. That’s a step above and beyond simply seeing other people more often.
[00:17:34] PF: That is terrific advice, and I’m so glad that we talked about that. Because, again, as you noted in your lack of research that we just don’t talk about it. I think those are such great guidelines for us to have to go forth and start really working on improving our friendships.
[00:17:51] EB: It’s really important because we don’t talk about it yet. The backbone of so much of our lives is our friends, especially at the office where most likely your spouse, your kids, if you have them, are not going to be there. But we can have friendships at work, and those can be critical. People have just a handful of friends more than average at the office, report being 96% happier with their life. That’s not 96% happier with their job. That’s 96% happier with their life.
When you look at relationships overall, relationships overall produced a happiness equivalent of an extra $131,000 a year, which when we typically think, it’s like try asking your boss for $131,000 raise and see –
[00:18:38] PF: Let me know how that works out for you.
[00:18:40] EB: Exactly, exactly. Yet friends accomplish that, and it’s something relatively easy to do. We just need to make the time and effort.
[00:18:49] PF: So we got to talk about the big relationships. That is marriage, long-term relationships. I love your cover because it boldly says that everything we know about relationships is mostly wrong. You get our attention right away. So what are we doing wrong? What’s the number one thing we’re doing wrong with these romantic relationships?
[00:19:13] EB: Well, I mean, there’s a number. I have a warning before the love and marriage section of the book because I don’t want people getting angry at me, where I discuss a lot of the hard truths that some people wouldn’t like to hear. But we need the facts so that we can address them. One thing that I think surprises a lot of people is that, basically, 69% of long-term issues in a relationship never get resolved. So those ongoing issues, 69% of the time, they don’t get solved, and that can be very distressing to people.
But I think if you look at it through another lens, it can actually be a big positive when we realize that for happy couples and unhappy couples, more than two-thirds of these things they don’t get solved, and don’t have to in order to have a happy partnership. What you have to do is it’s more about the regulation and the resolution of conflict. That some things you’re just always going to differ on and that’s okay, as long as you handle it in a compassionate and thoughtful way.
Some of these things, they’re not going to get fixed, and they don’t have to. You just have to be a little bit more polite, considerate, compassionate about how we deal with them. Because one of the biggest insights from John Gottman, who’s probably – He’s really the king of marriage and love research. This is something that people can put to use immediately, and it’s relatively easy to do. He found that just by listening to the first three minutes of a marital argument, he could tell you with 96% accuracy how that conversation was going to end. In other words –
[00:20:52] PF: Really?
[00:20:53] EB: Yes. Just the first three minutes. If it started harsh, it was going to end harsh 96% of the time. If we just take a second, calm it down, we don’t have to give them both barrels immediately.
[00:21:09] PF: Save some for later.
[00:21:13] EB: Instead of making it an accusation and finger pointing and you, if we just dial it back a little bit, we can change that. But when it starts harsh, it’s going to end harsh. Not only were those first three minutes being harsh correlated with the end being harsh. It was also correlated with divorce. It was immediately jumping on the attack. Nobody responds well to that. Nobody. It’s –
[00:21:36] PF: Yeah. No one’s like, “This is my favorite fighting style.”
[00:21:39] EB: Exactly. I’m so glad you mentioned that so viciously. We’re going to deal with this so much more effectively, now that you’ve called me names.
[00:21:53] PF: Did you learn anything about your own relationships, while you were doing this research? Was there anything that you went, “Oh, maybe I should do that differently.”? You don’t have to tell us what it was, but did it change you?
[00:22:03] EB: Yeah. I mean, so much changed me. I know, personally, in terms of the friendship arena, I’m sure I’ve spent many years striding around like a big tough guy. I’m not good at being vulnerable, and I don’t think most guys are. You look at the research in general, and women have much better friendships than men do. It’s one of the reasons why after a spouse passes, women live longer is because they still have friendships, and that’s because women put in the time, and they give up the vulnerability to sustain those.
For a lot of men, their wife is the center and primary source of their social life. When she’s not there, they don’t have anything, and it can be very hard for men to be vulnerable. I realized that there were a lot of friendships that – A lot of acquaintances that could have been deeper friendships, but I didn’t open up. Or a lot of friends I may have lost because I held back and things. It’s a tough thing to navigate.
But when you see the research, both in terms of duration, depth of relationship, but also what effects it has on your health, it’s like – Robin Dunbar, who was a professor at Oxford, looked at all the health data, and he basically said – He put it in a very funny way. Basically, what he said was that one year after a heart attack, what determines whether you’re alive or not, and he said, “Basically, whether or not you smoke and how good your friendships are.”
He’s like, “Yeah, there’s other stuff. It did matter. What you eat matters. Whether you exercise matters.” He’s like, “But those two things are so heads and tails above everything else. Don’t smoke. Have good friendships. Those are the two biggest determinants of whether you are alive a year later after a heart attack.” That’s really sobering, really sobering.
[00:23:50] PF: Yeah. So important. I think we just don’t put enough weight into what all of these relationships are doing for us. Whether it’s a friendship or a marriage relationship, it’s like learning what they’re doing for us is just an incredible discovery, and there’s so much to take away from this book. Well, first of all, is there hope for us? Is there hope for our relationships?
[00:24:14] EB: There’s plenty of hope for our relationships. I feel in every arena – The book’s got four sections. I talk about judging a book by its cover. So like reading people, understanding people. The second section is a friend in need, a friend indeed. The third section is does love conquers all, love and marriage. Then the fourth is, is no man an island, the issue of loneliness and community.
With all four, there’s hope for us. We’re just a little out of practice because of the pandemic. We just need a little bit of insight from science, and we can all be much better, and we can be better than we were before the pandemic happened.
[00:24:50] PF: That’s terrific. Thank you so much for writing this book. Who knew that your timing was going to be so spectacular? I really look forward to having our listeners learn more about it. We’ll tell them about it in the show notes, how they can get a copy of it. Thank you so much for sitting down and talking about this. I’ve truly enjoyed this conversation.
[00:25:08] EB: Oh, thank you so much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:25:14] PF: That was Eric Barker, talking about relationships and how we can improve them. If you’d like to follow Eric on social media, learn more about his book, Plays Well with Others, or just find out more about Eric in general, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
As a reminder, as part of Pride Month, we’re offering 20% off the entire Live Happy store right now. Check out our great pride t-shirt, as well as our mental health buttons, and our Live Happy hats. Just enter the promo code LOVE IS LOVE and claim your 20% discount.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.