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Family & friends

When it comes to happiness, our nearest and dearest really matter. Research shows people who have strong relationships with a partner, family or close friends are happier, healthier and live longer. And it works both ways - for us and for them too.

Unfortunately we often take our closest relationships for granted. Maintaining them takes conscious attention and effort and there are things we can all do that make a difference.

Good close relationships matter

Social ties are important throughout our lifespan, from birth through to old age. There is now a strong base of scientific evidence that the positive impact that social connections have not only on our happiness and mental functioning [1] but also on a range of other health outcomes [2] - and even how long we live. [3] So it's vital that we Connect with people.

Our close relationships are the most important of our relationships. Our broad social networks contribute to our happiness by making us feel more connected and increasing our sense of belonging and self esteem - but our close relationships give us greater meaning and support. [4]

It is the quality of our relationships that is important, not the quantity. In fact poor quality relationships can be a source of pain and stress and have a negative impact on our well-being. So taking steps to build and improve our closest relationships is vital. But it does take two, and so there may be times when, after trying, the best strategy for our long-term happiness maybe to move on [5], despite the fact we naturally resist the breaking bonds with other people. [6]

While much of the research on positive relationships has been on romantic couples, the results are likely to be applicable to other close friendships. Studies show that friendship increases well-being, has positive benefits for health and for how long we live, and of course it decreases loneliness which is a major source of unhappiness. [7]

What makes a good quality relationship?

The quality of our relationships depends on how act within them and what we do to build and maintain them. Without a doubt, long lasting and close relationships require time, energy and attention. [8] In recent years our pace of life has increased and unfortunately this is all too often at the expense of spending time family and close friends.

Scientific research has now started to identify the factors that make for positive, close and long-lasting relationships and so contribute to health and well-being. These include:

  • experiencing positive emotions;
  • sharing good things that happen to us;
  • being able to talk openly and feel understood;
  • giving and receiving support; and
  • the activities we choose to do with each other.

It's vital that we do things to Enhance our relationships and this requires conscious awareness and effort. [9] Some of the key factors that make for quality relationships are explained in the sections below. Which of these do you feel you might already be doing naturally or consciously, and which you think you could do more of?

Positive emotions in relationships

Positive emotions appear to play a central role in successful relationships. This does not mean that there's no place for negative emotions, but getting the balance right is important. Psychologist John Gottman's research suggests that the 'magic ratio' for happy marriages is that there should be five positive comments to each negative one! [14]

Positive emotions tend to make us more social and have higher quality interactions with others. One study showed that happy people are more likely to describe their friendships as close. Other studies reveal that experiencing positive emotions (e.g. amusement or excitement) together leads to closer, longer lasting bonds with others, and humour also seems to increase a sense of closeness amongst strangers. [9] There are lots of ideas for actions to increase positive emotions thoughout this website. What would your partner or friend enjoy?
Reciprocity: the importance of balance

The notion of give and take is important within our relationships and we are especially fine-tuned to this in the early stages. What goes around definitely seems to come around. This doesn't just refer to giving and receiving of gifts or favours, but to the amount of attention we give and how much we disclose about ourselves to each other. An equal balance is important.

Psychologist Jonathon Haidt calls this reciprocity and describes it as: "An all-purpose relationship tonic." He believes that when used properly reciprocity "strengthens, lengthens and rejuvenates social ties". [10] Importantly, in close relationships, reciprocity does not mean an exact, equal balance in specific areas - such as each doing an equal share of the cooking - but a sense of equal balance overall.

Talking about the good things

Research into successful relationships has revealed big benefits from talking about the good things that happen to us and asking about the good things that happen to our partners or close friends. Telling people about good events increases our day-to-day happiness over an above the beneficial effects of those good things happening.

Sharing the good things not only helps our well-being but it also does our relationships good by bringing us closer to others. What also seems to be important is how others respond to us sharing our good news. If they help us to re-live the positive experiences we've had, we feel good about our relationship too. [9]

Giving and receiving support

A vital factor that underpins successful relationships is the giving and receiving of support when it's needed. It has long been known that a key reason why relationships are good for us is that they provide support in times of difficulty. But it has also now been found that giving support to those around us can have as much, if not more impact on our own well-being. What's more, having a wide network of friends brings more opportunities to provide support (as well as receive it), which again increases our well-being and that of those close to us.

Discovering and having fun together

Making time to have fun and share new experiences together is another vital factor for successful close relationships. Benefits include encouraging positive emotions, sharing new activities and growing both as individuals and together. Reminising about the good times that you've had together has also been shown to increase our happiness. [9]

Relationships and attachment in the early years

The relationships that children experience in their early years have a huge impact on their long-term well-being. Psychologist John Bowlby demonstrated that attachment - the emotional link formed between infant and caregiver - was critical to a child's social development. Going against the general wisdom of the time that too much attention from a parent would lead to 'spoiling' or a lack of resilience. [11]

Bowlby proposed that we are born with an inbuilt system that helps us to regulate safe distances from our main caregiver. For example a one-year old will play happily in the presence of its mother or father but will get upset if their parent moves away and will be calmed when they come back. In contrast, when their caregiver returns, insecurely attached children will be either excessively clingy, avoid them or appear on the surface little affected, but experience physiological stress. As children grow, secure attachment has been linked to learning, positive communication skills and behaviour, the ability to cope with parental absence (e.g. starting school) and the development of strategies for managing insecurity. [12]

Research suggests that securely attached children are more likely to grow into autonomous and well-functioning adults and to form good relationships. [13] Secure or autonomous adults find it easy to get close to and trust others and are likely to seek relationships that reinforce this view. A secure adult attachment style is consistently linked to higher levels of hope and optimism, flexible cognitive processes and higher self-worth. It has also been linked to successful career development and even the ability to manage competing demands from home and work. [7]

References

[1] Lopez, F. G. (2009) Attachment Security', In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) OxfordHandbook of Positive Psychology. NY:OxfordUniversityPress.

[2] See for example Cohen S (2004)'Social relationships and health', American Psychologist 59 (8):676-684; Cacioppo JT, Hughes ME, Waite LJ, Hawkley LC, Thisted RA (2008), 'Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses', Psychology and Aging 2006 Mar;21(1):140-51 or Allen J (2008) 'Older People and Wellbeing' London:ippr.

[3] Berkman, L.F. and Syme, S.F. (1979) Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of alameda county residents, American Journal of Epidemiology, 109, 186-204.

[4] See nef Five ways to wellbeing

[5] Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness. London: Penguin Books

[6] Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529

[7] Maisel, N.C. & Gable, S.L. (2009) For richer…in good times…and in health: positive processes in relationships. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

[8] Snyder, CR & Lopez SJ (2007) Chapter 13, 'Attachment, Love and Flourishing Relationships', Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. CA:Sage. And Harvey,J.H, & Pauwels,B.G. (2009) Relationship connection: A redux on the role of minding and the quality of feeling special in the enhancement of closeness. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

[9] Maisel, N.C. & Gable, S.L. (2009) For richer…in good times…and in health: positive processes in relationships. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

[10] Haidt, J. (2006) The Happiness Hypothesis. London: Arrow Books

[11] Bowlby, J (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss. Vol. I. London: Hogarth

[12] Lopez, F 'Attachment security', Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology

[13] Reis, HT, Collins, W, & Berscheid, E (2000) 'The relationship context of human behavior and development', Psychological Bulletin, 126, 844-872

[14] Gottman, J.M. et al (2003) The Mathematics of Marriage: Dynamic non-linear models. Cambridge: MIT Press

Inspiring words

"There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved"

- George Sand

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Together we're stronger

Having a network of social connections or high levels of social support has been shown to increase our immunity to infection, lower our risk of heart disease and reduce mental decline as we get older.

Not having close personal ties has been shown to pose significant risks for our health.