The Happiness Track: Are We Really Worlds Apart?

The Happiness Track: Are We Really Worlds Apart?

New research shows men and women aren't so different after all

Photo Credit: Grandfailure/Thinkstock

When we think about creating a conscious relationship with someone, we tend to think of ways to bridge our differences. We want to allow room for both of us to be our different selves, we want to be able to openly communicate about the ways in which we see things differently, we want to learn to see and even appreciate the world from the other’s perspective. Especially when that relationship is between a woman and a man, we want to allow ourselves to revel in the vastness between us. We are, after all, worlds apart: Venus and Mars have different orbits, different gravities, different wavelengths of light. Negotiating this vastness seems so gloriously inclusive. But now scientific observations using new scanning technology suggests something even more fascinating: That view simply isn’t true.

In a recent brain-imaging study out of Tel Aviv University in Israel, scientists found that the brains of men and women are highly similar. In fact, they had a hard time finding areas of the brain that were not similar.

Probing further, the scientists tried to find men who tended to be stereotypically male and women who tended to be stereotypically female. Again, the scientists came up short. By these new scans, only 0.1 percent of the male population proved to be stereotypically male or female. The rest of us—essentially all of us—are a combination of male and female characteristics. Think about it. If you were to describe yourself, you would probably readily admit that you have both male and female qualities in your personality, as well. And so would just about everyone else.

If you dig into the literature on our human needs and wants, you’ll find the same story: We are all extremely similar. After food and shelter, our greatest need is for social connection, a sense of belonging. Whether you are a man or a woman, and no matter what your age is, having positive relationships with other people is incredibly important for your health, well-being, and longevity. Presumably, that’s why we seek each other out and build relationships in the first place.

Yet we also see that there is a growing epidemic of loneliness. One in four people say they have no one to talk to about personal problems. That’s enormously sad and unhealthy. The helpful news, however, is that social connection doesn’t come down to the number of relationships a person has. Rather, it stems from inside. If you take care of yourself and are happy from within, you will find that you feel connected to others.

Stress and anxiety, for example, make us self-focused and less empathic. No wonder you have a hard time connecting when you are on edge. So the first secret to having better relationships is for you to learn to reduce stress and anxiety—to have a better relationship with yourself.

Granted, the hardest thing we can do is to love ourselves. There are a million other things on our list ahead of self-care. Yet it is when we exert self-compassion, research shows, that we become happier and more resilient; that we have less anxiety, depression, and stress; and that our relationships with others improve.

Having self-compassion doesn’t mean not taking responsibility for yourself and your actions, or letting yourself be a lazy sloth; instead, it simply means that you don’t berate yourself harshly at every turn. The self-compassionate person will bounce back more easily from setbacks and have a ready smile. The self-compassionate person will know when to take a break from work so she can be energized and full of life. The self-compassionate person knows how to have good boundaries due to self-respect. The self-compassionate one will teach you how to love yourself.

How do you exert self- compassion? It’s simple: Treat yourself as you would a friend. When you make mistakes, comfort yourself. When you fail, remind yourself of what you would tell a friend: “Everyone makes mistakes.” When you’re overwhelmed with sadness or emotion, observe these emotions as you would those of a friend, and hold yourself with love. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher, even advocates giving yourself a physical hug. Try it right now.

Now think about the hug you just gave yourself in light of these new brain scans. Was your Mars hugging your Venus? Or was it the other way around? Since we have both inside us, go ahead and switch roles. Which feels better? Ask yourself which aspect of you is more huggable, and why? Share this experiment with others.

Emma Seppala, is the author of The Happiness Track (being published March 26th) and Science Director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford Medical School.

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