When I began a PhD program in Family Life at Utah State University, Nancy and I were worried about the potentially corrosive effects of research on our testimonies. Would the messages of science undermine our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Would scholarship undercut our faith?
We resolved to take an Institute of Religion class together every semester to guard our faith. The concern now seems naïve. Time and again, the discoveries of research in the area of Family Life fit beautifully with God’s teachings. In fact, the ideas offered by research made me more ready to understand and appreciate God’s instructions.
Let me give some examples of the harmony between research and religion in human relationships.
Martin Seligman is a prominent and brilliant psychologist who summarized the findings of research related to personal well-being. He makes five recommendations based on science. Seligman himself can’t quite decide if he is an atheist or an agnostic. Yet, his recommendations for happiness sound like they came from an inspired Sunday School class!
Jonathan Haidt’s description of what we have learned about human bias fits perfectly with King Benjamin’s observation that “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19). We humans are quite sure of our perceptions while often being mistaken. At least we are confident in our ignorance!
Redford Williams and his research colleagues have shown that anger narrows our thinking, kills our compassion, and undermines our creativity. It is also literally damaging to our hearts. While the Lord warns of the spiritual dangers of anger (3 Nephi 12:22), research shows the immediate damage to our hearts and our relationships.
Time and again, the scientific discoveries about how to be a happy, balanced person agree with what the Lord has taught throughout His revelations.
John Gottman, the world’s leading scholar on marriage, has shown that the key to an enduring and satisfying marriage is a preponderance of positives. When there are five positives observed and expressed for each negative, a relationship is likely to thrive. Gottman also showed how corrosive judgment can be in our relationships. These feels wonderfully compatible with Jesus’ ultimate commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.”
Gottman also found that every relationship has some unresolvable differences. In fact, he found that 69% of what you don’t like about your partner is never going to change—at least in mortality. This feels exactly like something God would create in our mortal experiences to assure that we learn to have compassion, forgive our spouses, and learn patience.
Blaine Fowers, another respected marriage scholar, taught, “As I have observed many different couples, I have become convinced that strong marriages are built on the virtues or character strengths of the spouses. In other words, the best way to have a good marriage is to be a good person” (Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness, p. 23, emphasis added). It appears that one key reason God has created marriage is to help us grow in our discipleship.
Again, the remarkable discoveries of research into relationships are in perfect harmony with God’s teachings.
The third area of focus in my graduate study and professional work was parenting. How do the discoveries in parenting research fit with God’s recommendations? Beautifully!
God provides remarkable lessons for leadership in Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-44. Consider how these instructions might apply to parenting.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
Research on effective parental control techniques recommends induction—a style that combines reasoning and the minimizing of power. When I first read the research on induction, I felt that the ideas had been stolen directly from D&C 121. The ideas and even the wording seemed to be taken from God’s instructions. I was astonished!
The parenting research on nurturing, praise, moral development, and emotion coaching, are all harmonious with what God has taught in scripture.
I should mention that when scholars create theories, they often suggest things that are incompatible with God’s word. However, when scholars gather good data on what actually works in relationships, the recommendations are consistently compatible with scripture. In fact, I see research and religion as complementary. Research often sends me to the word of God with better questions and brighter eyes. God always has the best answers, but good scholars often get us to think more richly about relationships.
You may remember Elder Uchtdorf’s General Conference talk in which he asked if we are living beneath our privileges. He spoke of us often attending meetings and nodding our heads, but failing to incorporate what we have learned into our lives. (“Your Potential, Your Privilege”, General Conference, April 2011) Are we neglecting the resources God is offering us? As Latter-day Saints, the Lord has provided us with insights and coaching related to personal happiness and family relationships through scriptures and modern-day revelation. Yet when we struggle in those areas, we frequently turn to the popular culture for untested—and sometimes counterproductive—solutions. We might not incorporate into our lives either what God wants to teach us or what research has discovered about how to successfully apply those teachings to ourselves and our families.
So that is why I wrote Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. At the end of my career in family and human development, I wanted to provide practical examples of how research and revelation can combine to lead us to greater happiness, better marriages, and more effective parenting.
You can get a copy of Discoveries from Deseret Book, Amazon, and many LDS booksellers. The book provides about sixty examples of combining research with the gospel to help you strengthen your relationships and increase your personal happiness. And for those of you who might want greater knowledge in a specific area related to those topics, it also points you to some of the best books and authors in that area.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her excellent editorial suggestions.