“One of the strongest findings in the literature of happiness is that happy people have better relationships than their less happy peers” (Lyubomirsky, 2007, p. 125)
“You will not be surprised by my three-word summary of positive psychology: Other people matter” (Peterson, 2006, p. 249)
We often talk about the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness, especially with new research demonstrating that social isolation is on the rise. But the flip side of the equation, the wide-array of positive benefits derived from close social relationships, has recently become well documented in psychology. At the highest level, close social relationships are strongly associated with both physical health and psychological well-being (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). Research has shown that humans have an innate need for love and connection, manifesting itself as early as infancy (Haidt, 2006). This holds from an evolutionary standpoint, as we know our ancestors’ probability of survival greatly increased when they shared benevolent social ties with those around them (Beckes & Coan, 2011). Perhaps it’s not surprising that children introduce the word friend into their vocabulary as early as three or four years old, as many as 75% of nursery school students have reciprocated friendships, and teenagers spend almost a third of their waking hours in the company of friends (Peterson, 2006).
How exactly do close social relationships drive well-being? Research suggests both a direct association, through the innate benefits of having positive social relationships, and indirectly, through slightly more complicated mechanisms, like self-expansion and capitalization (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). The self-expansion theory claims that individuals are motivated to increase the bounds of their selves by incorporating features of others into their life, and as a result, the closer the relationship, the more overlap between the individuals (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). This is essentially the scientific backdrop behind the popular sentiment of the importance of who you surround yourself with. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that in close relationships, mental models of the self and others seem to overlap. Along these lines, social relationships also serve as a source of learning and development, in some cases beyond standard friendships or loving relationships and through a lineage of mentors and their apprentices, enhancing both individual well-being and accomplishment (Peterson, 2006).
People also inherently engage in capitalization, the psychological term coined to represent the sharing of positive results with others (Langston, 1994; Gable & Gosnell, 2011), potentially playing a role in the evidence for happiness being contagious (Fowler & Christakis, 2008). When things are not going well, and we experience negative or stressful events, we often rely on our social support network, turning to others for comfort and advice (Gable, Gonzaga, & Strachman 2006). But, what about when we get good news and experience positive emotions? Research suggests that positive events occur more than three times as often as negative events (Gable & Haidt, 2005), though we may not reflect on them as much due to our inherent negativity bias. Nonetheless, it is estimated that between 60-80% of the time, people share the best thing that happened to them in a given day, typically relating to the following domains: social relationships, school or work, and health and body (Gable & Haidt, 2005). Importantly, capitalizing is associated with increases in well-being, life satisfaction and positive affect above and beyond the positive events themselves (Gable & Gonzaga, 2006). However, this positive effect is conditional, dependent on how the recipient of the positive news responds. Specifically, evidence suggests that the benefits of positive news are generated only from when the recipient responds in a supportive manner (Gable, Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004).
When dealing with less positive situations, research suggests there may be no better coping mechanism in times of stress and trauma than confiding in a friend or loved one (Lyubomrisky, 2017). Social support can come in various forms, including emotional (e.g., listening and reassuring), physical (e.g., driving to the hospital or picking up medicine), and informational (e.g. sharing advice). Perhaps it’s not surprising to find out that studies routinely find positive social relationships are among the best predictors of life satisfaction and longevity, ultimately accounting for more than other domains of human activity (Gable, 2018).
While there are many ways to cultivate close social relationships, kindness and compassion have been shown to play a critical role (Lyubomirsky, 2007). It is intuitive that our acts of kindness and compassion improve our relationships and the well-being of the people we care about. In recent research, positive psychology contributed additional understanding to this interaction, demonstrating that acts of compassion also improve the individual well-being of the provider (Lyubomirsky, 2007). Of course, this notion in of itself is not new or original.
Consider the Dalai Lama’s words: “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” Or similarly, the words of Archbishop Tutu: “I mean simply to say that ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others. It’s how we are made. I mean we’re wired to be compassionate.” (Lama, Tutu, & Abrams, 2016)
But what does science tell us about how this works? It turns out there are lots of reasons (Lyubomirsky, 2007). To highlight a few, evidence suggests that being kind and generous can: 1) lead you to perceive others more positively; 2) foster a heightened sense of interdependence within your community; 3) relieve guilt, distress, and discomfort over others’ suffering; 4) encourage a sense of appreciate for your own good fortune; 5) shift your focus away from yourself and onto others; 6) improve your perception of yourself and provide a sense of meaning; and 7) lead other people to like and appreciate you.
Clearly, the more we can do to develop and nurture our close social relationships, the better we and others will be, both physically and psychologically. Fortunately, positive psychology has developed a few empirically backed ways to do this, both in terms of friendships and romantic partners. Here are just three examples of positive interventions to help in this domain.
- Random Acts of Kindness: On one day of the coming week, perform five acts of kindness (note: it’s important that all acts of kindness are performed on one day). The acts can be big or small and can be for the same person or five different people. In addition to improving the lives of others, research demonstrates that participants who performed these random acts of kindness on a given day for six weeks experienced a significant increase in well-being (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005).
- Active Constructive Responding: In the next opportunity you get with a loved one, try to be a supportive responder. Supportive responses are best defined through the concept of Active Constructive Responding (ACR), part of a response model that proposes four distinct types of responding: “active-constructive (e.g., enthusiastic support), passive-constructive (e.g., quiet, understated support), active-destructive (e.g., demeaning the event), and passive-destructive responses (e.g., ignoring the event)” (Gable & Gonzaga, 2006, p. 905). Research suggests that only active-constructive responses, those that are enthusiastic, caring, and supportive, are positively associated with well-being for the person sharing the news (Gable et al., 2004).
- The gift of time. In an upcoming week, schedule to meet up with three people that you care about, above and beyond your normally planned activities. When we’re busy, and let’s face it we’re always busy, it is easy to sacrifice quality time with others in lieu of other tasks. While sometimes time consuming, taking the time to connect with others and nurture positive relationships is a fundamental aspect of well-being. People who did this activity showed improved well-being even one month later, and the results lasted longer for those that continue to give gifts of time (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2013).
So… what are you waiting for?
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Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 337, a2338.
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(2), 228.
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Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Wyss, T. (2013). Strength-based positive interventions: Further evidence for their potential in enhancing well-being and alleviating depression. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(4), 1241.
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