When I reflect on the happiest moments in my life, people are always part of the story. Not necessarily strangers - though their presence is welcome - but close, intimate relationships. I think about college, where being in a sorority meant I was constantly surrounded by my best friends. I think about glasses of wine shared with coworkers after a long week, where we end up laughing ourselves to tears. I think about small, sweet moments spent cuddled up next to the person I love, watching our newest favorite show and basking in the sense of easy closeness.
Relationships have always been the most important and fascinating things in my life. Particularly romantic relationships, and why it’s so difficult to find and stay in a happy one. This fascination has led me to seek out endless books, articles, videos, movies and conversations on the topic. Now, I’m excited to start the conversation on Blue Sky Mind.
Positive psychology and relationships
It turns out, my interest is not unfounded. People and organizations that study well-being unanimously conclude that relationships are a core factor -- if not the most important factor -- to living a happy life. This is a topic so central to Blue Sky Mind’s core mission to educate the world about positive psychology -- what it is, why it’s helpful and how to practice it in a realistic and sustainable way. Because your happiness is more influenced by your relationships than anything else in your life.
To introduce this topic on the blog, I wanted to draw the very clear connection between positive psychology and well-being, because the research is voluminous and conclusive on the subject.
Let’s dive in.
Researchers consider healthy relationships to be the single most important factor in happiness
From the man who’s credited with inventing the field of positive psychology, relationships are considered the “single most reliable” of the five elements to well-being. Martin Seligman identifies all five in his book on positive psychology, Flourish. The researched-backed elements of well-being include positive emotion, engagement, meaning, accomplishments, and relationships. In Seligman’s own words, “other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.”
For a great primer on Seligman’s book and five elements of well-being, check out the following video:
To add additional evidence to this idea, the Harvard Study of Adult Development -- a longitudinal study of 268 Harvard sophomores starting in 1938 and running until the end of each participant’s life -- found that:
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives . . .[Close relationships] protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”
So not only are relationships key to your present-day happiness, they’re instrumental in helping you live a long, healthy life.
A study out of Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, which surveyed 2,500 people, found that:
“Being more pro-social—engaged in meaningful, authentic relationships, showing kindness and generosity in the world and being part of a supportive community—is the most promising route to sustainably increasing our well-being.”
Let’s pause on a few of those words: kindness, generosity, authentic, supportive. Collecting acquaintances is not enough. True happiness requires that your relationships feel authentic and supportive, that you express kindness and generosity in order to warrant that treatment in return.
Additionally, research from one of Berkeley’s positive psychology fellows, Brett Ford, suggests:
“This kind of approach to pursuing happiness may work better than striving for continuous pleasure, success, and power.”
What this means: Stop prioritizing your job or your next sexy fling if you’re looking for lasting well-being. Start prioritizing authentic connections with people you enjoy. This idea is reinforced by everything I took away from Yale’s Science of Well-Being course (which I highly recommend).
Quality and quantity count, but so does time spent engaged in said relationships
At age 25, I already feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, so I’m very keen to understand which daily activities I should be investing in for my happiness. Three different studies I found map the link between how we spend our time and life satisfaction, with all signs pointing to socializing as the best thing you can do on a daily basis to increase your happiness. I’ve quoted two below.
Another longitudinal study out of Berkeley’s Greater Good Center found that when people spent more time socializing over the course of a year, they became more satisfied with their lives. Here’s the key quote for me:
“They were the people who committed to teach their son to swim or be more understanding of others, to go on a trip with their partner or meet new people . . . What seems true across cultures is that social connections are key to well-being. For example, very happy people are highly social and tend to have strong relationships; kids with a richer network of connections grow up to be happier adults; and socializing is one of the most positive everyday activities.”
One interesting point about this study is that the researchers acknowledged that social goals are easier to attain than, say, weight loss or getting a new job. To socialize with others, you simply have to pick up the phone or attend an event, whereas other goals require repeated, long-term effort to attain. This doesn’t diminish the positive effect of relationships by any means; in fact, it should motivate us all to take the few easy steps required to socialize more.
Another study by Nobel Prize winner Dan Kahneman, titled “Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method,” shows that intimate relations and socializing are the two most positive activities you can do in a day in order to increase well-being (defined by feeling happy, experiencing warm or friendly feelings, or simply enjoying yourself).
I was fascinated by the finding that participants got the biggest boost from friends and relatives, followed by their significant other and children; I would have thought that your SO and kids would be the happiest interactions of your day — food for thought. The most negative social interactions tend to be at work, with your boss, coworkers, or customers, which surprises approximately no one.
The three studies combined represent some of the most powerful data for me, because I tend to really value my alone time. In fact, I will specifically avoid making plans with people in order to pursue other goals that I think will make me more happy, like working out or writing for my blog. I continue to seek the right balance of socialization and working toward my various personal goals.
Just because relationships aren’t your “thing” doesn’t mean they can’t be a priority
If it’s not obvious already, relationships were something I cared about before I knew about their link to positive psychology. In fact, it's likely a huge part of what attracted me to the field.
Before, though, I was guilty of looking for all my happiness in the romantic affection of another human being. Now, I see it more as an essential component to a well-balanced well-being portfolio.
For those who aren't naturally drawn to relationships and don’t believe that they need human connection in order to live a happy life, my hunch is that past negative experiences have caused them to cordon off that part of their heart's desire. This might be due to their fear that the desire for connection won’t be adequately met and therefore lead to intense disappointment, perhaps for what seems like the umpteenth time.
I want to persuade anyone with this mindset that relationships are worth investing in and getting right. Even if they're not perfect, their healthy presence in your life will buffer so much of life's negativity. Even if you are the type of person whose goals fall far outside the realm of relationships, strong ones will invariably make you more successful in accomplishing the goals you do have.
Relationships and happiness are a self-reinforcing duo
I love this closing thought from an organization called Action for Happiness, which aggregates positive psychology research into a digestible website for folks who want to learn more about well-being:
“Just as relationships are a two-way thing, it seems the connection between happiness and relationships is too. Not only do relationships help to make us happier, but also happy people tend to have more and better quality relationships.”
Even knowing how important relationships are to your happiness, you can’t rely on other people to do the heavy lifting for you. It’s important to seek personal satisfaction in other areas of your life, so that you’re bringing joy to your relationships, rather than weighing them down with the heaviness of your unhappiness.
In a few weeks, I’ll be sharing two posts from a couple that has inspired me all my life with their easy and loving partnership. One is an interview with a licensed marriage counselor with 30 years of practice under her belt on the secrets of a happy relationship. The other is something of a love letter from a husband to his wife of 30 years, inclusive of advice for young people seeking the same affection and stability.
So that you don’t miss a thing on positive psychology and relationships, make sure to subscribe to Blue Sky Mind.