Sunny Star: Professor Benjamin Karney

Everyone is fascinated by dating, love, marriage, and the works. It is a unanimous subject that nearly everyone can relate to in some way—and we always want to know more. And interestingly enough, as much as we may shell out advice to our friends, we may ask just as many questions ourselves. In a field where so much knowledge has been acquired and where there is still so much to learn, Professor Ben Karney is looking to answer those questions about intimate relationships. He teaches at UCLA and I am thrilled to feature him today. He is one of the most well informed, enthusiastic, and beloved professors on campus and I can’t wait for you to hear what he has to say!
1. You currently teach the “Psychology of Intimate Relationships” course at UCLA. With over 400 students enrolled in your class, what motivates you to teach the course and how does it add to your happiness?
Teaching my course on intimate relationships makes me happy for a lot of reasons. First, my sense is that intimate relationships are a topic that a lot of students are genuinely interested in. So the students who come to class are not coming because they have to, but because they want to. That’s very gratifying. Second, because students are engaged with the material, they often ask questions or make comments that surprise me. I have been thinking about these issues for 20 years now, so to still be surprised is a wonderful thing and it happens every time I teach this course. That’s what makes live lectures so fun and irreplaceable. Third, I think that this field has made real progress in understanding some of the big mysteries of human intimacy, and I am excited to share that progress with other people.
2. What has been the most fascinating research that you’ve conducted?
For me, the most fascinating research tends to be whatever I am working on at the moment. So, for example, right now I am thinking about social networks and relationships. We have been asking spouses in low-income marriages to list 40 people they know, and to explain how each of those people know all of the other people in their list. The results are extremely cool maps of couple’s networks, revealing how much spouses’ networks overlap and how they are structured. I am interested in the implications of different network content and structure, because we have reason to believe that the implications of the structure of the network (i.e., how connected or isolated everyone is from everyone else) depends on the content of the network (i.e., close ties to supportive people is a good thing, but close ties to people that make life difficult for you is a bad thing). So that is occupying my brain now, and I see all of the ways that is is fascinating.
3. What do you think makes for a “happy” relationship?
No real surprises here. Happy relationships are those in which partners genuinely enjoy each other, strive to understand and accept each other, and are committed to each other’s well-being. Everyone pretty much wants these things. The real question is why these things that everyone wants are so hard to achieve.
4. What is the best advice that you have for college students who want to be in a happy and healthy intimate relationship?
  • Invest. When the relationship is good, do not take it for granted. Seize opportunitiesto enjoy each other.
  • Keep perspective. Try not to let specific problems become general ones.
  • Do not be the first one to go negative.
  • Remember that your partner may have had a bad day, too.
5. With a degree from Harvard, a published textbook, and many national awards, you are an inspiration to your students. What advice would you give to students who are striving to have a successful career like you’ve had?
In large part, I credit what success I have had to being very, very lucky at key points in my career. I was lucky to have had parents who supported my education. I was lucky to meet great mentors and collaborators at the right times. I was lucky to get great opportunities to do good research. So the main advice I have for others is: be lucky.
Once you have that, my other advice is to ask interesting questions, at least questions that are really, really interesting to you. Scientists are not the only ones who ask questions. Artists, engineers, politicians: every career has a question at its heart. Find out the question that you want to answer, and then pursue that answer. A good question should sustain you for a few decades, I think.
Keep shining,
The Sunny Girl, Lauren Cook
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