3 Life Lessons People Learn Too Late

IF YOUR AMBITION is to lead a satisfying life, your best bet is to cultivate connection. Studies show that people who enjoy rich ties with friends and family are happier, have fewer health problems, and are more resilient. When it comes to relationship advice, it’s also wise to approach conventional wisdom with a critical eye. We’ve culled the data, consulted the experts, and arrived at five essential lessons that depart from hand-me-down norms.
Lesson #1:
Radical Acceptance Saves the Day

The idea that we can fix perceived flaws in our partners, friends, parents, and grown children remains tantalizing. Decades ago, the musical Guys and Dolls lampooned this notion with the lyrics, “Marry the man today, and change his ways tomorrow.”

A healthy dose of ego often convinces us that our way of looking at things is right, but trying to “correct” someone else usually backfires, says psychologist Paul Coleman, author of “We Need to Talk”: Tough Conversations with Your Spouse. “It implies that we’re coming from a more enlightened place, that we have a deeper knowledge of what’s best,” he says. The other person may get the message that he or she isn’t good enough and become resentful.

A healthier approach: “Look inward to fix the problem,” says Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel. If your partner hates large gatherings, consider attending the next party solo so he doesn’t have to make forced conversation and you don’t have to leave early. Or if your son says he wants to forgo college for now, try to express enthusiasm for his budding career as a nature guide instead of bombarding him with school rankings. This involves the recognition that you’ll never be in sync about some matters. “You have to say, ‘We have this permanent difference, but we need to learn to live with each other,’” Coleman says.

Lesson #2:
Benign Neglect Is Good for Kids
Parents who hover relentlessly provoke eye rolls from developmental experts and teachers alike. You can see these parents sprinting to the swings to right a playground injustice or e-mailing schools incessantly.

“There’s a huge distrust in society’s institutions that pushes people to overparent,” says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps. “Parents also lack trust in children’s desire to be competent and don’t accept that nature will influence the course of development,” she says. The compulsion to intervene becomes stronger if parents view kids as surrogates for the fulfillment of their own dreams, says retired Tufts University child psychologist David Elkind, author of The Power of Play.

But regularly stepping in to protect kids from stress may hurt them in the long run. Michelle Givertz, assistant professor of communication studies at California State University, Chico, has studied hundreds of parent–young adult pairs and found that overparenting leads to depression-prone, aimless kids (and ultimately, adults) who lack the ability to achieve goals.

Parental overinvolvement is also associated with entitlement, Givertz says. Kids who are used to getting everything they need without exerting any effort may think, I’m entitled to everything, but I don’t have the abilities to achieve what I want.

It’s better to let kids live with occasional disappointment and resolve their own problems as much as possible, while assuring them that their feelings are heard (even if you’re the one saying no) and that you’re available for moral support. Trust in their capability to tackle obstacles. “Our job as parents is to help kids become self-sufficient,” Givertz says.

Lesson #3:
Opposites Don’t Forever Attract
The key to a happy, healthy relationship is choosing someone who is, quite frankly, a lot like you—a person who validates your views and habits. Studies have repeatedly underscored the importance of shared values, personality traits, economic backgrounds, and religion, as well as closeness in age.

Glenn Wilson, a psychologist and a professor at Gresham College in London, developed a compatibility questionnaire covering lifestyle, politics, child rearing, morality, and finances. He found that partners who answer comparably are more apt to report satisfaction. Still, he says, “when couples are overly similar, it can be a bit of a brother-sister relationship—too predictable, without a lot of novelty.”

So what’s the happy medium? Seek a partner whose passions differ enough from yours to expand your experience, but with whom you’re aligned on big-picture issues: how to show affection, what constitutes a moral life, and how to raise children.