Happy in marriage? Genetics may play a role

Happy in marriage? Genetics may play a role

People fall in love for many reasons — similar interests, physical attraction, and shared values among them. But if they marry and stay together, their long-term happiness may depend on their individual genes or those of their spouse, says a new study led by Yale School of Public Health researchers.

Published in the journal PLOS One, the study examined the role of a genetic variation that affects oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in social bonding.

Lead author Joan Monin, associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health, and her team studied 178 married couples ranging in age from 37 to 90 years old. Each participant completed a survey about their feelings of marital security and satisfaction, and also provided a saliva sample for genotyping.

The research team found that when at least one partner had a genetic variation known as the GG genotype within the oxytocin gene receptor, the couple reported significantly greater marital satisfaction and feelings of security within their marriage. Those couples had greater satisfaction compared with other couples who had different genotypes.

While the oxytocin receptor variant, OXTR rs53576, has been previously studied and linked to personality traits such as emotional stability, empathy, and sociability, the new study is believed to be the first to examine its role in marital satisfaction.

This study shows that how we feel in our close relationships is influenced by more than just our shared experiences with our partners over time,” said Monin. “In marriage, people are also influenced by their own and their partner’s genetic predispositions.”

The researchers also found that people with the GG genotype reported less anxious attachment in their marriage, which also benefitted their relationship. Anxious attachment is a style of relationship insecurity that develops from past experiences with close family members and partners over the life course, and is associated with diminished self-worth, high rejection sensitivity, and approval-seeking behavior, said Monin.

The researchers said that an individual’s GG genotype and their partner’s GG genotype together account for about 4% of the variance of marital satisfaction. Although this percentage is small, it is a significant influence considering other genetic and environmental factors to which couples are exposed.

The study findings may lead to future studies to examine how couples’ genotypes interact to influence relationship outcomes over time. Another important future direction for study will be to examine how the OXTR rs53576 variant interacts with specific negative and positive relationship experiences to influence relationship quality over time in a large representative sample of married couples, said Monin.



This article was originally published in NIH. Read the original article.

What Women Find in Friends That They May Not Get From Love

What Women Find in Friends That They May Not Get From Love

SARA and I met as office drones in 1999. We became friends in a period of our lives when the demands of our jobs were just heating up, when the roots we were putting down in the city were just getting deep. In each other, we found respite, recognition, a shared eagerness to relax, take stock and talk about it all.

Many other women were doing the same things. Female friendship has been the bedrock of women’s lives for as long as there have been women. In earlier eras, when there was less chance that a marriage, entered often for economic reasons, would provide emotional or intellectual succor, female friends offered intimate ballast.

These days, marriages ideally offer far more in the way of soulful satisfaction. But they tend to begin later in life — today 20 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 are married, compared with nearly 60 percent in 1960; the median age of first marriage for women has risen to 27 — if they marry at all. The marriage rate hit a record low in 2015, and a 2014 Pew Research Center study showed a significant number of adults had never been married and predicted that a quarter of millennials might never marry.

As women live more of our adult lives unmarried, we become ourselves not necessarily in tandem with a man or within a traditional family structure, but instead alongside other women: our friends.

Among the largely unacknowledged truths of contemporary female life is that women’s foundational relationships are as likely to be with one another as they are with the romantic partners who, we’re told, are supposed to complete us.

My relationship with Sara had a low-slung thrum of beer, cigarettes and the kind of quotidian familiarity we think of as exclusive to long-term mates, or possibly siblings. We played cards and watched award shows and baseball and presidential debates together; we shared doctors and advised each other on office politics; we gossiped and kept each other company when the exterminator came to behead the mice. (Seriously: This was the exterminator we both used, and he beheaded mice.)

Together, Sara and I had a close network of four other friends with whom we vacationed, but also maintained separate relationships with our own circles. Without realizing it, we were recreating contemporary versions of very old webs of support. The historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has written about women’s relationships in the 19th century that “friends did not form isolated dyads but were normally part of highly integrated networks.”

Friendships provided the core of what I wanted from adulthood — connection, shared sensibilities, enjoyment. Unlike my few youthful romances, which had mostly depleted me, my female friendships were replenishing, and their salubrious effect expanded into other layers of my life: They made things I yearned for, like better work, fairer remuneration, increased self-assurance and even just fun, seem more attainable.

Female friendship was not a consolation prize, some romance also-ran. Women who find affinity with one another are not settling. In fact, they may be doing the opposite, finding something vital that is lacking in their romantic entanglements, and thus setting their standards healthily higher.

Four years after we first met, the man Sara had been seeing was offered a job in Boston. They dated long distance for a year. But then they had to make a decision; he was intent on staying in Boston, even though it was not a city that offered her much professional opportunity.

Watching Sara wrestle with her choices was painful. It was the kind of upheaval, in our late 20s, that was messy enough to make me consider whether early marriage might have been wise after all. When we’re young, after all, our lives are so much more pliant, can be joined without too much fuss. When we get older, the infrastructure of our adulthood takes shape, connects to other lives. The prospect of breaking it all apart and rebuilding it elsewhere becomes a far more daunting project than it might have been had we just married someone at 22, and done all that construction together.

The day Sara moved to Boston, after weeks of packing and giving away her stuff, a bunch of friends closed up the U-Haul and gave long hugs and shouted our goodbyes as she drove off. When she was gone and I was alone, I cried.

Make no mistake: I believed that Sara should go. I wanted her to be happy and I understood that what we wanted for ourselves and for each other was not only strong friendships and rewarding work, but also warm and functional relationships with romantic and sexual partners; both of us were clear on our desires for love, commitment, family. Yet at the time, I was so gutted that I wrote an article about her departure, “Girlfriends Are the New Husbands,” in which I contemplated the possibility that it’s our female friends who now play the role that spouses once did, perhaps better than the spouses did.

Historically, friendships between women provided them with attention, affection and an outlet for intellectual or political exchange in eras when marriage, still chiefly a fiscal and social necessity, wasn’t an institution from which many could be sure of gleaning sexual or companionate pleasure.

Because these relationships played such a different role from marriage in a woman’s life, it was quite realistic for commitments between women to persist as emotionally central after the marriages of one or both of them. Even the happiest of married women found something in their associations with other women that they did not have with their husbands. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton, devotedly wed and mother of seven, once said of her activist partner, Susan B. Anthony, “So closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences” that when separated, “we have a feeling of incompleteness.”

SIX months after she moved to Boston, Sara came back.

She came back because the relationship she’d traveled to Boston for wasn’t fulfilling. More important, she came back because the life she’d left in New York — her work, her city, her friends — was fulfilling. She came back for herself. She says now that it was a New York job listing that was the beacon: “It was telling me to return to the life that fed me, my circle of friends, to return to myself.” I was sad that her relationship hadn’t worked out, but happy that she had built a life on her own that was satisfying and welcoming enough to provide her with an appealing alternative. And I was thrilled to have her back.

But divides can creep in between friends just as easily as they do in marriages. Maybe because she was nursing painful wounds as she rebuilt her New York life, and was resistant to simply falling back into her old patterns; maybe because, after the pain of having to say goodbye, I was gun-shy about giving myself over so completely, our friendship was never again quite as effortless as it had once been. “It was a rough re-entry,” she said recently of that time. “I knew of course that your life had continued while I was gone and that your circles of friends had expanded, but I was sad that we couldn’t slip right back into the space where we had left off.”

Then, a couple of years after her return, it was I who fell in love, I who suddenly couldn’t go out multiple nights a week with my girlfriends, because I had met a man with whom — for the first time in my life — I wanted to spend those nights.

When I met Darius, I was stunned by how much time I wanted with him, and also by the impossibility of living my social life as I had before. And once I took out the constancy of communication with my female friends, the dailiness and all-knowingness, the same-boatness, the primacy of our bonds began to dissipate.

We have no good blueprint for how to integrate the contemporary intimacies of female friendship and of marriage into one life. In this one small (but not insignificant) way, I think, 19th-century women were lucky, with their largely unsatisfying marriages and segregation into a subjugated and repressed gender caste. They had it easier on this one front: They could maintain an allegiance to their female friends, because there was a much smaller chance that their husbands were going to play a competitively absorbing role in their emotional and intellectual lives.

Sara says now that she was surprised to see me disappear so completely into a relationship, after having known me for years as the one who didn’t have (or need) a stable romantic partnership. I was the one who was far more into my work and my friends, the one who was so rarely in a relationship that I’d already begun planning to have a child on my own, the one who was familiar with the turning away of friends toward traditional relationships. Now hereI was, making that turn myself. “I was happy for you,” Sara told me. “But it felt like we’d switched roles; I woke up one morning as the independent feminist and you were the girl who was so into her boyfriend.”

The worrywarts of the early 20th century may have been right about the competitive draw of female friendship, about the possibility that it might inhibit or restrain a desire for marriage, especially bad marriages. But the real consequence of having friendships that are so fulfilling is that when you actually meet someone you like enough to clear the high bar your friendships have set, the chances are good that you’re going to really like him or her. That’s what happened to me.

For many women, friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. Even for women who do marry, this is true at the beginning of our adult lives, and at the end — after divorce or the death of a spouse.

There aren’t any ceremonies to make this official. There aren’t weddings; there aren’t health benefits or domestic partnerships or familial recognition. There has not yet been any satisfying way to recognize the role that we play for one another. But, as so many millions of us stay unmarried for more years, maybe there should be.

The Value of Childhood Crushes

The Value of Childhood Crushes

When my daughter was in preschool, she came home one day starry-eyed and breathless, gushing about a 4-year-old in her class. “I love him,” she swooned. “Sooo much.” Downplaying her theatrics, I tried changing the subject. She changed it back. I was baffled. That kind of love isn’t for children — is it?

As classroom Valentine’s Day card exchanges give parents an opening to talk to kids about crushes, here is some expert insight into children’s early inklings of romance, and tips on how to respond.

Believe Them
Do children really fall in love? Amanda Rose, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri who focuses on friendships and peer relationships in childhood and adolescence, has researched romantic interests in children as young as third and fifth grade, half of whom report having a boyfriend or girlfriend — a percentage that goes down with age. The difference, she said, is that the younger children are less likely than adolescents to have reciprocal romances. An elementary school-age child might never be aware of being a classmate’s object of affection.

“What we’re capturing with those younger kids is probably crushes,” Dr. Rose said. And although there’s little research about crushes for children younger than third grade, many adults recall infatuations at those young ages — and we see them in our children.

Dr. Rose likens young kids’ crushes to other types of pretend play such as playing house or ambulance driver: It is a kind of practice.

“In research on children’s social and cognitive development, those activities are discussed as very important in terms of trying out, at a very rudimentary level, adult roles,” she said. “I could see crushes as very similar.”

Deborah Roffman, a human sexuality educator and author based at the Park School in Baltimore, said crushes are “a normal part of development, when kids start to see each other in ways that are a little bit different. I really do believe that they get a little zing in their heart.”

“I clearly recall falling in love with my second-grade teacher,” said Greg Smallidge, an independent sexuality educator based in Seattle who trains teachers and works with students in schools and community programs. But for parents, he said, “to appropriately allow our kid this normal thing is challenging because it does dip into our fears.”

“Parents are more confused than ever about what’s truly age-appropriate,” Ms. Roffman said.

Sex, of course, is not for children. But love and romance can be for anyone.

Validate Them
As a writer on sex education, I often speak in schools. I’ve met parents who cringe in talking about how their preschool- or elementary school-age child has enacted romantic behaviors with other kids, for example, by holding hands, talking about kissing or naming a classmate they plan to marry. They often suspect the behavior is problematic.

That’s in contrast to what I’ve observed of the Dutch approach to sex education, which emphasizes healthy relationships and normalizes early flutterings of children’s hearts.

When I researched school sex ed in the Netherlands, one of the world’s most sexually healthy and gender-equal countries, I found that Dutch speakers use the term verliefd zijn — “being in love” — with equal credence for children, teenagers and adults.

For Americans, being “in love” is usually reserved for older teenagers and adults. We use trivializing terms like “puppy love” or “boy crazy” for younger adolescents, and it’s arguable we have no everyday language at all for the romantic thoughts of small children.

Instead of brushing aside young children’s crushes, Ms. Roffman suggested simply reflecting back to the child that you are listening: “Oh, so you have some special feelings for that person.” That can invite the child to open up.

Dr. Rose suggests finding a middle ground between underreacting and overreacting, even if a child’s infatuation seems trifling. “Maybe you also think it’s silly that they don’t like broccoli, but that’s how they feel, and as little humans their feelings deserve to be respected.”

Acknowledging and age-appropriately supporting kids’ crushes (“How’s Sarah doing? Oh, you got to sit by her? That must have been fun!”) can be a valuable early opportunity, she said, to open trustworthy lines of communication with our kids about love, relationships and, eventually, healthy sexuality.

Dr. Rose cautioned against teasing. Asking kids of any age about whether they have a boyfriend or girlfriend may send unintended messages about gender issues or sex, or make them feel too embarrassed to open up about love in the future. As a neutral conversation opener, you might ask if your child’s classmates talk about having crushes.

Model Respect
It can be especially important for boys to hear that it is good to have tenderhearted feelings. Research shows that American boys want intimacy and romance at the same rate as girls — but by admitting to that, they risk being seen as unmasculine.

With regard to the #MeToo movement, Dr. Rose said, we also can respond to children’s crushes by showing consideration for the object of their affection. It is an opportunity to reinforce an age-appropriate lesson about consent, even if the level of touching in the relationship amounts to nothing more than holding hands.

When engaging kids in conversation about the apple of their eye, Ms. Roffman suggests trying not to lead with questions that are gender-stereotyping or superficial (“Is she cute?”). Instead, she said, try asking, “What do you like about that person? What do you notice about them? What’s their personality like?” Kids also need to know that it’s normal to have crushes on someone of the same sex or gender.

Expect Things to Fizzle
Dr. Rose said it’s helpful to learn young to deal with breakups. “It’s the beginning of trying to experience what those emotions feel like and learning how to manage them. If you have a crush and he says something not very nice to you, or he ignores you, then that is a first opportunity for a 10-year-old to process, well, how do you manage those feelings?”

If families allow children to have play dates with their crushes, Mr. Smallidge said, they should help select activities suitable for the children’s age. Spending time together with a crush can be as simple as playing together at the park or getting ice cream, just as children would do with other friends.

One option, of course, is to do nothing at all about a crush except to savor it. “That is so safe,” Mr. Smallidge said. “That’s such a delicious feeling. One of the messages that would be nice for kids to hear is that they don’t have to do anything about crushes. A crush has its own value because it opens us up and it’s exciting. And most of them, I would say, end there.”

Loneliness Is Bad for Your Health. An App May Help.

Loneliness Is Bad for Your Health. An App May Help.

Loneliness is bad for your health. Social isolation is associated with a significantly increased risk of premature death. And the problem resists fixing; solitary people who participate in experiments meant to nudge them into joining groups tend to have high rates of recidivism. According to a study published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, however, it might be possible to reduce loneliness by using cellphones to teach a particular type of meditation.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and several other institutions recruited 153 men and women who considered themselves stressed out — the study was slightly mischaracterized to disguise a primary concern, loneliness. Next, the volunteers completed questionnaires: They were asked about their social networks, their interactions with others and their feelings of loneliness, if any. Their baseline levels of sociability were established through texts that prodded them to answer questions about what they were doing and with whom. This monitoring lasted three days.

The subjects were then randomly divided into three groups and given an app for their phones. The app gave the control group general techniques for coping with stress. Another group was taught mindfulness through the meditative method of paying close attention to the moment and focusing on breathing and other sensations. The third group received those and additional instructions: Take note of and say “yes” aloud to all sensations, a process that trained the subjects to be attentive and approach what the researchers dubbed “equanimity.” Every day for two weeks, the subjects were tasked with using their app for 20 minutes and practicing for another 10 minutes. Afterward, they filled out the questionnaires again and went through another three days of monitoring.

Little changed for those in either the control group or the one taught attention-only mindfulness. But the subjects whose training included acceptance and equanimity were measurably more sociable. Their daily routines, after using the app for two weeks, typically included several more interactions with people that lasted at least a few minutes, and their questionnaires showed a decline in their feelings of loneliness.

Because loneliness, like mindfulness, is a subjective state, it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions about why and how a focus on acceptance prompted greater sociability. But David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon who conducted the study with the lead author, Emily Lindsay, believes that “the equanimity piece is key.” The poise it teaches, he says, may help people become less self-judgmental, less self-conscious, more amenable to interacting with others.

“People who are lonely usually feel bad about themselves because they are lonely, making it harder for them to put themselves in social situations,” Creswell says. A certain kind of mindfulness might help people “care less about feeling bad.” They might attend the party they would otherwise skip.

How to Make Time with Family and Loved Ones Count

How to Make Time with Family and Loved Ones Count

In a time not so long ago or far away, eating family dinner, connecting with your spouse after tucking the children into bed or talking with your children in the in-between times like the ride to school was well, just routine.

But times have changed. Our growing cultural mind-set is that we’re too busy to connect with those closest to us, even though we collectively want to. Parents and children alike increasingly invest their downtime in phones and on social media and there’s a general sense that there’s always more. More to read, more to reply to, and more to see. Because of this pressure to always consume more, it can feel wasteful to slow down to appreciate the people in front of us, for fear of missing out on life happening elsewhere.

Although it’s true that we can always consume more information, it’s not true that slowing down and taking time to connect — particularly face-to-face — is a waste of time. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Making time for social connections can reduce the chances of depression and anxiety caused by loneliness. And those connections can have broader benefits as well. John Gottman, Ph.D., notes in his book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” that enhancing your “love maps,” as in your knowledge of your spouse’s day-to-day experiences, is key to a happy, healthy marriage and a happier, healthier life.

But just because the data shows that making time for face-to-face interaction has a huge payoff doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.

As someone who coaches people on improving their time management, I understand that the gap feels far between what you know you should do and what you feel you have time to do. To help bridge that divide, here are a few simple ways to integrate face-to-face interaction into your family’s lifestyle.

Eat together
Eating together as a family requires intentional effort, but most families can manage it at least a few times through the week. The intention, however, starts at the top.

In my family growing up, eating dinner together was a priority, so how we chose activities, such as which dance classes to take, involved whether or not the class schedule would allow us to eat as a family. In your family, you may want to reassess the timing of extracurricular activities to see if you can align your schedules to allow everyone to have a seat at the table. You also may want to see if you can make any adjustments to your work schedule (such as going in earlier and leaving earlier some days) so you can make it home in time to eat with your spouse or children.

If family dinners at home won’t work regularly, then try to find alternatives. For example, try to eat breakfast together or have weekend rituals such as savoring a Saturday brunch or a Sunday dinner together.

To get the full benefit of those meals, keep away the phones and turn off the TV. You may want to have a basket for everyone to put their phones in, on silent, before the meal starts. The goal is to not just eat but to get a sense of what’s going on in everyone’s lives, and to get the gist of their emotional state. For example if you notice your usually talkative daughter seems sullen, you now have the opportunity to follow-up later and ask her, “You didn’t seem like yourself at dinner. Are you doing OK? Did something happen at school?”

Wind down together
Another important opportunity to reconnect with each other is winding down together before bed. You probably know that using electronic devices in the hour before bed makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. So you can improve your physical health and the health of your relationships by using that time to connect with your spouse instead. Some of my coaching clients form a pact with their significant other to be off technology by a certain time of night. If you need some extra reinforcement, apps like OFFTIME can help to block your phone during certain hours. Plus, it’s a good idea to set your phone to “do not disturb” mode so you rest peacefully.

This tech-free before sleep ritual gives you the opportunity to pay attention to your spouse and to stay emotionally attuned to how he or she is feeling. It’s also a perfect time to ask for details about their day or their thoughts, or follow-up on earlier side comments like, “I had a rough day at work,” when your attention isn’t divided by children, evening errands, or other issues around the house.

Live life together
I understand time can feel tight and we all legitimately have things to do. So the best opportunity for face-to-face, meaningful connection is to invite your family members into whatever you’re already doing. Ask your kids to help you cook. Invite your spouse to walk the dog with you, and turn it into an evening ritual. Or suggest they join you on that evening errand to Target.

Connection develops and strengthens in the little day-to-day moments. In her book, “Daring Greatly,” Brené Brown says, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow.”

Making those deeply personal, face-to-face connections a priority in your family builds meaningful bonds. It also acts as a powerful prevention strategy so you can reduce the time and energy you need to spend on cures.

Can We Love Ourselves the Way We Love Our Children?

Can We Love Ourselves the Way We Love Our Children?

This is the week we learn where my 4-year-old daughter will attend kindergarten next September. I devoted many hours last fall to composing an essay about her — an important essay, because it was for her applications to private schools. I spent more energy on this piece of work than I ever spent on my college or grad school applications.

Finding the right words to describe your baby, the one you had when you were 43, with one of the eggs you froze when you were 39, is no simple task.

I drafted it in my bedroom, over many days, while curled into the puffy purple recliner I still call “the Breast-Feeding Chair,” even though it’s been three years since my daughter pronounced herself “All done” and walked away from me, my breasts and the purple chair.

How do you paint a portrait of your child’s first four years on earth?

Be pithy. Your expressed love for your child must not exceed the allotted 500 to 750 word count on kindergarten applications. Still, though, when you illuminate her, you revel in the smallest details, like how she anthropomorphizes everything, including her pasta: “Oh poor little worms — I’m going to eat you now!”

Don’t boast. That’s pushy, and in the competitive world of kindergarten admissions, it’s lethal to present yourself as anything remotely resembling a PITA. (That’s “pain in the ass” in admissions speak.) No, you bear witness to your kid and report: how she pretends she’s Hercules when she helps place the bolster pillow on your bed in the morning, how she’s been known to approach disheveled hipsters and inquire, compassionately, “Are you homeless?” How she possesses an exceptionally good sense of joke structure. You may have to rein yourself in as you approach hagiography.

Choose your stories carefully. I don’t mention in the kindergarten essay that my husband and I call our daughter “Rasputin,” because she’s preternaturally unstoppable, and occasionally “The Emotional Terrorist,” when she doesn’t want to cooperate with our request that she be “a ninja sister” at bedtime, tiptoeing into bed so as not to wake her sleeping brother.

The application essay is a special kind of art form, and I polished mine carefully. Though I did get stuck on whether to use the word “diaphanous” to describe the “unicorn veil” my kid fashions on her head daily.

Around the time I’d sent my masterpiece to my husband for his editorial review, I received, utterly unexpectedly, an email containing another application essay, from 25 years earlier.

It was a letter of recommendation a college mentor had written for me, during the fall of my senior year, when I was applying for a graduate scholarship that would change my life. We had long been out of touch, but he had found it while cleaning out “the Aegean Stables” of his office, as he put it, in preparation for his retirement. He emailed it to me with the subject line “an old chestnut found …” and wrote, “I hope you enjoy it; it surely made me smile … and I stand by it in its entirety.”

I read it in the Breast-feeding Chair. It made me weep. It was an oddly painful read, this celebration of my 21-year-old self: the young woman it describes has everything to offer and the dauntless self-possession to offer it. According to the essayist, she has talent, curiosity and pluck. I remember her. And I know how rough her life will become, just a few short years after this was sent to the scholarship committee. I want to tell her, “Stay there! Roam those cobblestone streets, holding something by Virginia Woolf, for as long as you can. Meet friends in pubs where you can pet cats and talk about Antigone vs. Creon and never leave! Your mother will die too soon, and your heart will break in multiple ways for many years.”

If the things my mentor generously wrote about me were true then, are they still true? Did I squander any of that faith I earned? The scholarship that essay helped me win asked me to promise to “fight the world’s fight.” Had I? Do I?

My life has not, in many ways, ended up as I’d imagined. I thought my profession would be different. I thought I’d never get divorced. I presumed my kids would have a grandmother. I was certain I’d own a home, maybe have a master bathroom with two sinks.

And yet, I had no idea how fulfilled I’d be by the career I somehow created in a city where the cost of living means we must budget carefully so we can have some choice of where our kids go to school, even if it means we rent a two-bedroom sans washer/dryer; how I’d marry again — to a treasure of a man I never would have dated in college; how I’d finally become a mother through a journey so itinerant that my gratitude for my wee family makes me weep at least once a week. Or maybe that’s perimenopause.

But there’s no time to ponder existential questions; there are kindergartens to visit. I watch my daughter, her hair sprouting in doggy ear pigtails, wearing sequin stars, stride with curiosity into one of them. Nice ladies from the admissions team take her away from me, and she’ll be assessed in the room where it happens. I don’t know what she will say or whether she will draw a self-portrait with impressive details like nostrils — which are said to increase her chances of admission.

I do know she’s unburdened by anyone’s notions of promise. It’s not my business to assign her dreams for her future. She’s already my dream and has been since the moment of conception — or rather, since the implantation of the Day 5 Grade A blastocyst. She is formed; she has launched herself.

That’s it, then, I think, as I sit in a school lobby waiting for my girl to be returned to me, her hair bouncing as she runs into my outstretched arms: Can we love ourselves the way we love our children? It’s time I see myself as I see my daughter. A self-evaluation through the eyes of a mother I lost long ago

Two essays, written a quarter-century apart, together teach me to focus not on promise, but on presence.

Friends, then benefits

Friends, then benefits

BEAUTY opens many doors. Study after study has concluded that the comely earn more, are better liked, are treated more indulgently and are even given more lenient sentences in court than their plainer counterparts. The door it opens widest, though, is the romantic one. As both common sense and evolutionary theory suggest should happen, beautiful people attract beautiful partners. But not always. Occasionally, handsome men choose plain women, and vice versa.

Why this should be vexes psychologists and biologists alike. A study by Lucy Hunt of the University of Texas at Austin, and her colleagues, soon to be published in Psychological Science, suggests an answer. It depends on whether the couples in questions were friends before they were lovers.


Ms Hunt asked 167 couples how they had come to know one another. Individuals were questioned alone, and their responses compared with those of their other halves. Those responses were mixed: 40% of couples said they were friends before they were lovers, while 41% said they were not. (The remaining 19% could not agree, with one member of the couple saying they had been friends beforehand and the other denying it.)

To measure participants’ attractiveness, Ms Hunt showed videos of them to a group of undergraduates who had not been told the experiment’s goal. The students were asked to rate the attractiveness of the people in the videos on a seven-point scale. Generally, the scores assigned to a participant by different students agreed with one another, which allowed Ms Hunt to calculate, with a fair degree of confidence, just how well-correlated in the beauty stakes a pair of lovers were.

She and her colleagues found that the attractiveness of couples who became romantic partners soon after their first meeting had an average correlation of 0.46 (out of a maximum possible of 1.0). In other words, if a man in such a couple was rated as “very attractive”, there was a fair chance that his female counterpart would be rated as “very attractive” too. In contrast, those who were friends first had an average correlation of just 0.18. Tellingly, the researchers found that the longer the members of a couple had known each other before becoming lovers, the lower was the strength of the correlation.

So a period of pre-romantic friendship can indeed erode beauty’s pulling power. But why? One explanation Ms Hunt proposes is that friendship gives potential mates time to assess subtler attributes, such as intelligence and dependability, as well as the more obvious signal of outward beauty. Given the huge commitment, by both sexes, involved in raising children, such a strategy of long-term assessment is likely to have evolution on its side.

That does, though, raise questions. One is, why does love at first sight persist? Another is, if beauty is, in an evolutionary sense, tradable for good parenting skills, what does that have to say about the parenting skills of beautiful couples?



This article was originally published in The Economist. Read the original article.

Against Romance: An Un-Valentine

One Valentine’s Day many years ago, my spouse, Gil, brought home a bouquet of roses. I am Dutch and he is Israeli, so neither of us had grown up celebrating Valentine’s Day. But it was our first year as graduate students in the United States, and one of his classmates, shocked that he was planning to spend the evening at the library, convinced him that he’d risk losing my love if he didn’t bring me a romantic gift.

He came home with a bouquet of overpriced supermarket roses that would be on sale the next day. I wasn’t as much bothered by the price — even though I’m Dutch — as I was offended by his unoriginality. I threatened him with divorce if he ever again brought me overpriced roses or chocolates in mid-February. Relieved to be able to go back to his books, he agreed and has never again tried to be romantic.

A lethal combination of Hollywood sentimentality, Victorian romanticism and bridal-magazine kitsch has placed an impossible burden on love. We’re supposed to subject our relationships to some recipe for unfading ardor and permanent swoon and are made to believe we are failing if we just live in reality.

I object to the tyranny of perfect romance. I’d rather have a flawed relationship of my own than the kind of fairy tale love in which the lovers are replaceable elements in an arrangement of candlelight dinners, red roses and walks on the beach. I prefer my love imperfect.

Gil has never been successful at romance. That’s what I liked most about him when we first met. I was a freshman at Hebrew University in Jerusalem when a mutual friend introduced him to me as someone who could help me with my paper on witchcraft, one of his many academic interests. He later told me he was in love with me from the moment he saw me in the university cafeteria. But instead of flirting, he talked to me about witches and the nature of magic. I liked him because I don’t trust smooth people.

That first day, we became so immersed in our conversation that we skipped class and talked through the next lecture period. We both knew this was the beginning of a love affair. But if I’d left it up to him, we might never have moved beyond academic discussion.

“I’m going to see a movie tonight,” he announced at the end of our conversation, apparently unaware that in conventional romance he was expected to ask me to join him.

“I’ll come too,” I said.

We shared an interest in learning, traveling and adventure. Two years after we met, he received a scholarship to study in China for one year. I went along. As we traveled throughout the country, we made a stop in Hong Kong and got married at City Hall in a 10-minute civil ceremony. Of course we were in love, but that wasn’t why we tied the knot. Gil was applying for graduate school in the United States and a marriage certificate would allow me to join him on his student visa. I figured that as long as we didn’t have kids we could easily divorce.

I’m uncomfortable with the idea that wedding vows should ensure undying love. Such commitment is based on the fragile assumption that our current selves can make promises for our future selves. I find it almost presumptuous to expect such certainty of the future. I can only take love day by day.

For more than half of our lives, though, we have stayed together. We went to graduate school in the United States, and traveled all over the world. Eventually, we even had children. Our daughter was born in Taiwan, where Gil was completing his Ph.D. research while I was teaching English and writing freelance. Our son was born two years later in the United States, where Gil got a job as a professor.

If in all the years we’ve been together, I haven’t seriously considered separating, it’s because even at times when things between us seemed wrong, I couldn’t bear the thought that in ending our relationship, I would lose Gil.

Of the two of us, I’m the more capricious. I’m a flirt, easily distracted by a meaningful glance or the touch of a good-looking man. Gil prefers to spend his mental energy on academic problems rather than frivolous romantic fantasies. I’ve often developed crushes, which Gil tends to take in stride because he mostly just finds them pointless. When I confessed to an infatuation with someone I didn’t seriously want to be with, his response sobered me up: “Then why are you wasting your time?” he asked.

He really doesn’t understand the appeal of romance. I’m a sentimental romantic at heart, but because of him I’ve learned to appreciate that there are many other pursuits — raising children, caring for the world, writing, travel, adventure — that are more rewarding than romance. As exciting and intoxicating romance is, it doesn’t need to dictate our lives.

But there are times — especially after I have watched certain romantic movies — when I panic and think my life is all wrong because our last candlelight dinner consisted of cold leftovers during an electrical blackout, and nowadays, when Gil and I are awake in bed, it’s most likely that we are reading. When I look at ourselves through a romantic lens, I see a pathetically passionless couple, held together by habit and inertia, and I start fantasizing about eloping with a more ardent lover.

Of course, after more than 25 years in a relationship, the fire of passion has dimmed to a glow of familiarity, and now that we have children our interactions are often limited to the coordination of schedules and squabbles about the fair distribution of responsibilities. We can fight in shorthand because we’re so well acquainted with each other’s grievances that we don’t need to go through the whole argument anymore.

But when, during my moments of marital doubt, I look at other men as potential lovers, I realize there aren’t many with whom, after 25 years, I’d still get along as well as with Gil. Maybe it’s just because we’ve grown intertwined, like two trees that need each other for support.

I know him well enough now that I can say with some certainty that this is not a fleeting infatuation. I love him, not only because I know him better than any other person in the world, but also because I’ve learned from him to distrust romanticism, and above all, because it would never occur to him to ever again give me a Valentine.

This article was originally published in The New York Times. Read the original article.

Aristotle’s Pursuit of Happiness

Aristotle’s Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness seems to be in short supply today, with acrimony, incivility and bad behavior permeating society and the media from the highest echelons of government on down. Yet happiness has always been something distinctively coveted by Americans. The inalienable right to pursue it, along with life and liberty, was enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

If we are to pursue it, however, we need to define it. And to understand what Jefferson really meant by happiness, we must turn to a thinker who influenced him: the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century B.C.

Aristotle’s ethical system—as described in his major treatises, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics—revolves around the idea that the goal of human life is happiness, which he called eudaimonia. (In Greek, the root eu means “well” or “good,” and daimonia suggests a guardian spirit or one’s lot in life.) Aristotle didn’t equate happiness with wealth, pleasure or fame. For him, happiness was an internal state of mind—a felicity or contentment that we can acquire only by living life in the best way possible.

Aristotle was born in a small, independent Greek city-state, but he spent years at close quarters with the Macedonian royal family. He was an eyewitness to the court of Philip II, Alexander the Great’s despotic father, who was ruthless, acquisitive and addicted to conspicuous consumption. Philip pitted his rivalrous lieutenants, wives, concubines and children against each other, and they responded by endlessly plotting bouts of reciprocal murder.

Aristotle saw that these seemingly fortunate members of the elite were actually miserable. Such people spend their lives acquiring material possessions or seeking sensory gratification, but on some level they know that these pursuits aren’t conducive to true happiness. They may even recognize the right thing to do, but they are too weak or lazy to act on it.

Real happiness, Aristotle believed, comes from a continuous effort to become the best possible version of yourself. Like his teacher Plato and Plato’s own teacher Socrates, he subscribed to the ancient proverb engraved over the oracle at Delphi: Know thyself.

Aristotle’s common-sense prescriptions for happiness also offer hope for the wider community.

In his treatises, Aristotle analyzed a wide range of traits of character—in Greek, ethos, from which we derive the word “ethics.” These included libido, courage, anger, how we treat other people and how we regard money. All of us possess these properties, and happiness comes from cultivating each one in the correct amount, so that it is a virtue (arete) rather than a vice.

It is in this notion of the “mean” that Aristotelian ethics differs from other ancient moral systems. Aristotle does not teach, for instance, that anger is a vice and patience a virtue. Rather, he believes that when we feel anger in the right amount, at the right time and toward the right people, it is virtuous. Without it, we wouldn’t stand up for ourselves or for important principles. Failing to feel anger when we are wronged is a vice, but then so is excessive, misplaced or gratuitous anger.

And the same goes for every other quality. Fiscal responsibility, to take another example, is the virtue lying between the vices of parsimony—which Aristotle despised, especially in the rich—and reckless spending.

Good Aristotelians acknowledge both their best and their worst moral characteristics and work continuously at self-improvement. They try to develop habits of generosity, honesty, responsibility, integrity, fairness, kindness and good humor. The result is a comforting moral self-sufficiency that even bereavement, bankruptcy or sheer bad luck can’t take away.

Aristotle’s common-sense prescriptions for happiness also offer hope for the wider community. When he said that we are political animals, he meant that we flourish by cultivating the virtues in relation not just to ourselves and our families but also to our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. He offers us a way to pursue our happiness as individuals, but his principles can help us to make the public arena a better place as well.



This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Read the original article.

What’s Going On In Your Child’s Brain When You Read Them A Story?

What's Going On In Your Child's Brain When You Read Them A Story?

“I want The Three Bears!”

These days parents, caregivers and teachers have lots of options when it comes to fulfilling that request. You can read a picture book, put on a cartoon, play an audiobook, or even ask Alexa.

newly published study gives some insight into what may be happening inside young children’s brains in each of those situations. And, says lead author Dr. John Hutton, there is an apparent “Goldilocks effect” — some kinds of storytelling may be “too cold” for children, while others are “too hot.” And, of course, some are “just right.”

Hutton is a researcher and pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital with a special interest in “emergent literacy” — the process of learning to read.


For the study, 27 children around age 4 went into an FMRI machine. They were presented with stories in three conditions: audio only; the illustrated pages of a storybook with an audio voiceover; and an animated cartoon. All three versions came from the Web site of Canadian author Robert Munsch.

While the children paid attention to the stories, the MRI, the machine scanned for activation within certain brain networks, and connectivity between the networks.

“We went into it with an idea in mind of what brain networks were likely to be influenced by the story,” Hutton explains. One was language. One was visual perception. The third is called visual imagery. The fourth was the default mode network, which Hutton calls, “the seat of the soul, internal reflection — how something matters to you.”

The default mode network includes regions of the brain that appear more active when someone is not actively concentrating on a designated mental task involving the outside world.

In terms of Hutton’s “Goldilocks effect,” here’s what the researchers found:

In the audio-only condition (too cold): language networks were activated, but there was less connectivity overall. “There was more evidence the children were straining to understand.”

In the animation condition (too hot): there was a lot of activity in the audio and visual perception networks, but not a lot of connectivity among the various brain networks. “The language network was working to keep up with the story,” says Hutton. “Our interpretation was that the animation was doing all the work for the child. They were expending the most energy just figuring out what it means.” The children’s comprehension of the story was the worst in this condition.

The illustration condition was what Hutton called “just right”.

When children could see illustrations, language-network activity dropped a bit compared to the audio condition. Instead of only paying attention to the words, Hutton says, the children’s understanding of the story was “scaffolded” by having the images as clues.

“Give them a picture and they have a cookie to work with,” he explains. “With animation it’s all dumped on them all at once and they don’t have to do any of the work.”

Most importantly, in the illustrated book condition, researchers saw increased connectivity between — and among — all the networks they were looking at: visual perception, imagery, default mode and language.

“For 3- to 5-year-olds, the imagery and default mode networks mature late, and take practice to integrate with the rest of the brain,” Hutton explains. “With animation you may be missing an opportunity to develop them.”

When we read to our children, they are doing more work than meets the eye. “It’s that muscle they’re developing bringing the images to life in their minds.”

Hutton’s concern is that in the longer term, “kids who are exposed to too much animation are going to be at risk for developing not enough integration.”

Overwhelmed by the demands of processing language, without enough practice, they may also be less skilled at forming mental pictures based on what they read, much less reflecting on the content of a story. This is the stereotype of a “reluctant reader” whose brain is not well-versed in getting the most out of a book.

One interesting note is that, because of the constraints of an MRI machine, which encloses and immobilizes your body, the story-with-illustrations condition wasn’t actually as good as reading on Mom or Dad’s lap.

The emotional bonding and physical closeness, Hutton says, were missing. So were the exchanges known as “dialogic reading,” where caregivers point out specific words or prompt children to “show me the cat?” in a picture. “That’s a whole other layer,” of building reading Hutton says.

In an ideal world, you would always be there to read to your child. The results of this small, preliminary study also suggest that, when parents do turn to electronic devices for young children, they should gravitate toward the most stripped-down version of a narrated, illustrated ebook, as opposed to either audio-only or animation.


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