Whether you consider yourself a social butterfly, more inclined to one-on-one interactions, or prefer solitude, there’s no denying that the quality of your personal relationships affect your levels of happiness, well-being, and physical health.
We are wired for connection. As the saying goes, “No man is an island”. Consider research done on over 200 undergraduate students by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, two giants in the field of happiness and positive psychology, which compared the happiest 10% of the group with the unhappiest 10%.
It turns out that the happiest students were much more satisfied with their relationships with their romantic partners, family, and close friends, and spent more time with others, than the unhappiest students.
Furthermore, as Diener and colleagues stated in a 2008 paper that as a general rule, the more relationships people have, the greater the boost to their sense of well-being.
What about people from different countries and cultures? Would relationships still stand out as being linked to people’s personal perceptions of their well-being? Yes, indeed – according to a 2011 study, which showed that having even just several solid, healthy relationships was tied to subjective well-being. Good news for those of us who’d rather bond with just a few other people.
What’s more, social rejection or pain shares many neural or brain pathways with physical pain, according to research with both animals and humans. When we say that we have a “heartache”, this is not entirely untrue.
Interestingly, Tylenol (acetaminophen) can reduce the intensity of emotional pain that social rejection provokes. In a 2010 study where participants were given either Tylenol or a placebo (sugar pill), then asked to think about a painful experience with rejection, those who ingested Tylenol reported significantly less emotional pain than those who took a placebo. Given Tylenol’s common use as a physical pain killer, this supports the link between physical and social pain.
Feeling lonely, or perceived social isolation, is different that actual social isolation. For instance, you could be surrounded by people and engaging in conversation but still feel lonely, although technically you’re socially connected. It turns out that loneliness is a risk factor for both morbidity (disease) and mortality.
On a related note, not all relationships are beneficial to one’s health. For instance, the quality of one’s relationship with one’s spouse has been linked with one’s cardiovascular health. In one 2013 study, when couples rated their perceptions of their spouse’s emotional support, perceived ambivalence (both positive and negative support) was correlated with greater inflammation than purely positive support.
It’s sometimes believed that once people get married, they often “let themselves go” physically. All that home cooking, binge-watching TV together on the couch, partners in crime, so to speak… Not necessarily true, though.
What is generally the case is that we tend to adopt similar habits to those people we are close to, especially our spouses. So, it pays to encourage and join each other in healthy lifestyle choices, such as daily walks, joining (and going to) a gym, and eating nutritious meals. Sharing interests such as book groups, meditation retreats, and community service can offer additional opportunities for mutual motivation when it comes to life-enhancing activities. As Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Choose wisely.
As for improving the quality of your current relationships, some tips include:
- Expressing gratitude. Whether it’s for their taking out the garbage, putting gas in the car, or listening to you at the end of a long day, thank your partner for their efforts.
- Good communication. Although such skills aren’t generally taught in school, it’s key to connect in ways that respect both you, your partner, and your relationship. No bullying, manipulating, or condemning.
- Being okay with disagreements. No two people are alike, so it’s unrealistic to expect that you and your partner will see eye-to-eye on every topic – and this needn’t be a threat to your relationship. The important thing is not to trash the other person’s opinion, but to try and see how they might feel a certain way, even as you maintain your own point of view.
- Follow the 5:1 rule. John and Julie Gottman, originators of the Gottman Method for couples therapy, found in their research that the couples who stayed together, in a satisfying relationship, maintained an average of five positive statements to every one negative statement, even during their arguments. Yes, even when discussing a potentially heated matter, it’s possible to offer affirming statements (“I know you’re thinking about the children’s welfare”, “I love you”, “Thank you for…”), and your partner’s level of anxiety is likely to lower as a result, allowing him or her to be less defensive and hear you more clearly.
- Taking responsibility for your own choices. Nobody makes you do things. If they do, you may be in an abusive relationship. In other cases, it’s not usually helpful to say, “You drive me to drink” or “Your whining makes me depressed”. Yes, you can point out that “when you come home late without texting me, I get anxious”, but you have the ability to respond (response-ability) in whatever way you choose.
- Consistently making time for each other. Love is a verb as well as a feeling. Spending time together and really listening, not only to the other person’s words, but to their nonverbal communication, shows that you care. This is an environment in which a relationship can thrive.
Healthy relationships can add not only years to our lives but also give us a greater sense of purpose in the years that we have. You owe it to yourself and to those around you to nurture at least a few close relationships – you are likely to find that doing so is more than worth the effort.