Relationships are key

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.

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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 but also on a range of other health outcomes – and even how long we live. 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

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. 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. 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!

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. There are lots of ideas for actions to increase positive emotions thoughout this website. What would your partner or friend enjoy?

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”. 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.

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.

Taking time to have 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.

Relationship 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.

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.

Research suggests that securely attached children are more likely to grow into autonomous and well-functioning adults and to form good relationships. 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.