Positive relationships to boost wellbeing

Forming healthy, meaningful relationships is a fundamental human need shared across all cultures. Indeed, enduring, positive relationships help us create fulfilling lives and increase our wellbeing. Let’s explore what they look like and how to build and maintain them.

Forming healthy, meaningful relationships is a fundamental human need shared across all cultures. Indeed, enduring, positive relationships help us create fulfilling lives and increase our wellbeing. Let’s explore what they look like and how to build and maintain them.

Introduction

“Very little of what is positive is solitary,” writes positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Think about it. When did you last feel joyful, laugh uncontrollably, or experience a profoundly meaningful event? Were you on your own or with those to whom you felt a connection?

Other people, it seems, are our best antidote to life’s ups and downs. They keep the former manageable while increasing the frequency of the latter. After all, ask yourself, do I have someone to turn to when things are tough? And is there someone I could call when I want to share the good things in life?

If you can answer yes to both you are more likely to feel happier and live longer – it really is that significant. Having relationships, and seeking them out, is a basic psychological need – a possible legacy of an evolutionary adaptation to ensure group survival. After all, according to evolutionary psychologist David Buss, a social group is more likely to hunt together, share their bounty, and live closely, offering protection to one another. Survival, it seems, needs good relationships [1, 8].

Relationships and the PERMA model

‘Positive relationships’ is the third element of Martin Seligman’s wellbeing model – PERMA. While crucial in its own right for anyone wishing for the ‘good life,’ it also benefits several other elements: fostering positive emotions, encouraging meaningful living, and reaching for goals. Better relationships mean a more fulfilling existence in every aspect.

Research also confirms that, while vital to happiness, wellbeing, and positive functioning, positive relationships also help us cope when things get tough and build resilience for when things go wrong. In fact, they are so valuable that studies have shown that good relationships can boost health and vitality, aid recovery from illness, and even help us live longer.

Indeed, a 2010 mega-review of 148 studies (and a staggering 308,849 participants) confirmed that strong social relationships offer an incredible 50% increase in the likelihood of survival – versus dying.  And that’s consistent across age, sex, and initial health status [1, 14].

The power of relationships for flourishing

Over the last 5 decades, psychological research has consistently reported the same finding. Those with close ties to friends and family report more happiness, increased wellbeing, and lower levels of mental illness – particularly depression.

In 2004, Daniel Kahneman conducted an innovative study that sampled people’s happiness at various points throughout the day. When buzzed, they would score how happy they were and record who they were with and what they were doing. The results confirm the theory – we experience more positive emotions when together.

We may all wish for a win on the lottery, but our numbers have truly come up if we have high-quality relationships. While a lack of money can be a source of distress, more than enough does not guarantee happiness – while social connections do. 

When next picking your lottery numbers, stop and consider whether you are paying sufficient attention to those special in your life [1, 2, 3, 6, 14].

A lack of relationships

Being lonely, socially isolated, or excluded from others has a devastating effect on individuals, organizations, and communities. So much so that, even before the arrival of positive psychology, therapists encouraged their clients to form lasting, fulfilling relationships.

So, with each of us spurred on to spend time forming close connections with others, what do we know of what defines ‘positive’ relationships? Intriguingly, psychology tells us that relationships are more than the sum of their interactions. Their power doesn’t just reside in the individuals involved but forms out of the patterns and rhythms of connections between them.

A good relationship is also not simply captured in a single moment; they require longevity and an ongoing mutual influence. And though a relationship itself is invisible, we can identify and recognize its effects. 

After all, we are social creatures. According to evolutionary psychologists, the need to satisfy our social needs is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. Strong connections help maintain our physical and mental wellbeing and ensure survival at times of upheaval [2, 4, 8].

The power of the negative

Negative relationships can profoundly affect our wellbeing. They are a primary cause of stress, anguish, and even trauma. They can even impact life expectancy – potentially cutting lives short.

Bullying is a prime example. It’s an extreme negative relationship and a type of intimidation that causes verbal or physical harm to another and can lead to feelings of depression and loneliness.

Yet a 2019 study also found that, surprisingly, it’s not only the victims that suffer; it’s even the bullies themselves and bystanders – it seems anyone involved can experience extreme stress and anxiety. It’s a lose-lose situation.

While we typically think of bullying at school, it also occurs in the workplace. And yet, as with educational institutions, we can stop it by implementing a no-bullying mandate and a culture of standing up for the abused. Indeed, a recent study found that, if an organization is seen to value fairness, observers are much more likely to step in and challenge inappropriate behavior [9, 10].

Digging deeper into our social needs

Psychologists describe relationships as involving up to 5 categories of ‘social need’ – they help us understand why we build and maintain relationships.

The first is ‘intimacy.’ We have a profound desire to have people around us with whom we can share our deepest thoughts and feelings. Next, we have ‘companionship,’ the wish to spend time with others and engage in shared activities. Then ‘physical needs,’ ranging from holding hands to having sex, and ‘security’ – stability is vital, as is the ability to rely on others for support. 

Finally, and equally importantly, ‘emotional involvement.’ We seek out emotional engagement with others, mutually influencing our own and their emotional experiences and needs. 

And yet, this need not be as complicated or well-thought-out as it sounds. Our need to form and maintain relationships is natural, an innate drive to meet our social needs through creating bonds with others [3].

Theories of attachment

The bonds we form in our childhood profoundly impact our adult relationships. Psychologists call this process ‘attachment theory.’ It explains how our past affects our present relationships based on several different ‘styles.’ 

For example, a ‘secure attachment style’ describes individuals who find it easy to form close bonds with others – they can be relied upon and are equally comfortable depending on others. 

Less helpfully, we may also adopt ‘avoidant’ attachment styles:  when we fear or avoid intimacy and find ourselves uncomfortable relying on others or being depended upon.

And, while it’s important to note that the attachment styles we form early on can endure, thankfully, they aren’t necessarily fixed. A 2021 long-term study of over 4,000 people found that impactful life events, such as changing jobs and starting relationships, can help us form new attachment styles. Indeed, with the proper support, we can transform unhelpful relationship styles into ones that enable positive, healthy relationships to flourish [3, 11].

The search for love

Perhaps the most potent emotional response is that of love. It is strongest when positive emotions are shared, there is an underlying motivation to care for one another, and people’s behaviors and biochemistry are synched.

Love can vary in intensity and change over time, often ranging from liking to infatuation – or, more often, somewhere between. Such feelings are often moderated by what we are looking for in a partner and the phase of our life in which we find ourselves. Are we looking for support, trust, and understanding? Do we wish for someone attractive, sexy, and sociable? Or are we secretly looking toward someone for their socioeconomic status or financial rewards?

While motives may not always be obvious, it’s clear romantic bonds can boost happiness and improve wellbeing. A 2016 study reported that single individuals experienced reduced life satisfaction while partnered individuals exhibited lower romantic loneliness. And a vast 2020 study, including over 164,000 subjects, identified that married persons have lower mortality and longer life expectancy [3, 12, 13].

Random acts of kindness

Positive psychologists use several well-validated interventions to improve relationships – at work, with friends, or in the family.  So, let’s take a look at one. The ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ exercise is a positive psychological intervention; it increases people’s sense of wellbeing and degree of happiness. And it’s simple.

Each week, commit to brightening other people’s lives in the days ahead. Challenge yourself to perform 5 random acts of kindness – big or small, it doesn’t matter. It could be stopping to help a stranger with directions, offering support to a loved one going through a tough time, or donating blood. They are all powerful.

The only rule is that they must be genuine without expecting anything in return. After all, ‘giving’ is already a win-win situation, benefiting both the giver and the recipient and increasing all-round happiness [1, 3, 5].

Practicing forgiveness

Most positive psychology interventions that promote building and maintaining relationships work by boosting compassion, gratitude, empathy, and forgiveness.

Yet, forgiveness is not easy, even when relationships demand it – or we risk their breakdown. So, why not give the following exercise a try to get some practice in. 

Think of someone that has upset or wronged you. Recall the specific event, closing your eyes and visualizing what happened – playing it through from your perspective and then theirs. Imagine it running live. What is the other person feeling, and how could events, thoughts, and beliefs have led to their behavior. Commit to forgiveness and hold on to that emotion, playing the scene through a few more times. When ready, open your eyes.

Perspective-taking has been shown to assist empathy and forgiveness and rebuild and strengthen relationships, particularly after conflict [1, 3].

[1] Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

[2] Boniwell, I., & Tunariu, A. D. (2019). Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. London: Open University Press.

[3] Hart, R. (2021). Positive psychology: The basics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[4] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: The Guilford Press.

[5] Lyubomirsky, S., Tkach, C., & Yelverton, J. (2004). Pursuing sustained happiness through random acts of kindness and counting one’s blessings: Tests of two six-week interventions. Unpublished data, University of California, Riverside, Department of Psychology.

[6] Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method. Science, 306(5702)

[7] Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7). 

[8] Buss, D. M. (2016). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[9] Evans, C. B. R., Smokowski, P. R., Rose, R. A., Mercado, M. C., & Marshall, K. J. (2018). Cumulative bullying experiences, adolescent behavioral and mental health, and academic achievement: An integrative model of perpetration, victimization, and bystander behavior. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 28, 2415–2428.

[10] Priesemuth, M., & Schminke, M. (2017). Helping thy neighbor? prosocial reactions to observed abusive supervision in the Workplace. Journal of Management, 45(3), 1225-1251. 

[11] Fraley, R. C., Gillath, O., & Deboeck, P. R. (2021). Do life events lead to enduring changes in adult attachment styles? A naturalistic longitudinal investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(6), 1567–1606.

[12] Adamczyk, K., & Segrin, C. (2016). The Mediating Role of Romantic Desolation and Dating Anxiety in the Association Between Interpersonal Competence and Life Satisfaction Among Polish Young Adults. Journal of Adult Development, 23, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10804-015-9216-3

[13] Jia, H., & Lubetkin, E. I. (2020). Life expectancy and active life expectancy by marital status among older U.S. adults: Results from the U.S. Medicare Health Outcome Survey (HOS). SSM – Population Health, 12, 100642. 

[14] Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., & Layton, J.B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PlOs Med, 7(7), e1000316.

doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

Additional useful references, just for noting

‘What is positive psychology? A Starting Point’ – yet to be published on positivepsychology.com (by Jeremy Sutton)

Applying Positive Psychology in Coaching: Your Ultimate Guide (by Jeremy Sutton)

Applying Positive Psychology in Therapy Your Ultimate Guide – yet to be published on positivepsychology.com (by Jeremy Sutton)

Seligman’s PERMA+ Model Explained: A Theory of Wellbeing

Building Intrinsic Motivation in Students: 29 Classroom Tools

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