“Positive, healthy relationships are a key ingredient when it comes to boosting our wellbeing and resilience” (Martin Seligman, Professor of Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania).
Whilst wellbeing science can’t agree on a singular wellbeing model – one consistent theory is that relationships are essential to our health and wellbeing – as both individuals and communities.
There are two types of relationships that are vital for our psychological wellbeing:
Strong and deep relationships: These are relationships with people who are close to you such as family and friends. This type of connection takes time and energy to develop, and provide support, enjoyment, encouragement and meaning to your life.
Broad relationships: These are typically relationships with people in your wider community. They are not as deep as those with your friends and family, but still very important as they provide a sense of familiarity, connectedness and self-worth. These relationships may be with neighbours or people you meet at the park or at the shops. They may be connections through your children’s school or interest group – and may also be online.
Robert Waldinger, the current Director of The Harvard Study of Adult Development says that “people who are more socially connected to family, friends or to the community are physically healthier and live longer than those who are less well-connected.” You can listen to his TED talk on this subject here.
Healthy social relationships can increase our feelings of happiness, security, belonging and self-worth. Connections with family and friends help us to feel secure and provide emotional support. Sharing positive experiences together also promotes positive emotions, provides an opportunity to savour and creates memories to reminisce about down the track.
It’s not just our mental wellbeing that improves with healthy social relationships, our physical health can benefit too from:
Better cardiovascular function (blood pressure during times of stress, HDL cholesterol levels)
Lowered cortisol levels and enhanced oxytocin levels
Enhanced immune function
Improved health behaviours and choices
Not all relationships, however, are created equally. Sometimes relationships can become unsupportive and have a negative impact on your wellbeing. At times tension can change the relationship dynamic, especially during trying times like the COVID-19 pandemic, throughout the festive season and whilst navigating a new ‘normal’ post-lockdown.
Here are three positive psychology strategies which may help maintain your relationships:
1. Look at others through strength-coloured glasses
Over time, we can take other people and our relationship with them for granted. Negativity bias can creep in, where we focus on the negatives in the relationship or the other person, instead of the positives. A strengths approach to your relationships can help you see the good in others and appreciate them for who they are, rather than who they could be.
One idea that I love is a ‘strengths’ focused catch-up. This may be with your romantic partner, or even with your best friend, sibling or a parent. A strengths catch-up entails picking a top strength of your own (i.e. spontaneity), and one from the other person (i.e. problem-solving) and planning and outing where you both have an opportunity to exercise those strengths. For example, you could book an Escape Room challenge and then the first restaurant that you see when you finish for lunch! Your sense of spontaneity is fulfilled, and your partner’s drive to solve problems is satisfied! The point is to have fun, connect and enjoy each other’s company. It may even lead to reminiscing about happy times gone by!
Read more about this concept below:
2. Active Constructive Responding
How we respond to people sharing their experiences can either help build or weaken your relationship. When it comes to someone sharing their good news, there are four basic ways of responding, and only one of them builds the relationship – Active Constructive Responding. This approach offers genuine, authentic, enthusiastic support for the other person when responding to their good news. For example, in response to being told about a work promotion - “Wow you got that promotion, I knew you’d do it – how do you feel?!”
Passive and destructive responding on the other hand – i.e., a delayed response where the recipient of the news offers a low energy, dismissive response, can damage their relationship. For example – “oh cool, that’s nice, good for you.”
Healthy relationships are two-way where both parties are satisfied and trust the other person, and each can respond actively and constructively to the others good news.
Read more here - https://positivepsychology.com/active-constructive-communication/
3. Compassion – Loving Kindness Meditation
Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM or Metta Bhavana) is a method of developing compassion for others. It is a type of meditation which “focuses on developing feelings of goodwill, kindness and warmth towards others” (Salzberg, 1997). Adapted from a Buddhist tradition, it can be practiced by anyone. It involves meditating as you normally would but bringing your attention to a person (or people) during the meditation practice –visualising them standing in front of you and sharing your love and kindness with them through affirmation statements.
Click here for an easy-to-follow worksheet on how to practice LKM. LKM begins with cultivating compassion towards oneself, then toward:
A neutral person
Someone you have difficulty with
There are many benefits to LKM:
Increases positive emotions (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008)
Increases feelings of social connection (Kok et al., 2013)
Decreases pain, anger, and psychological distress (Carson et al., 2005)
Focus on the health of your relationships and your overall health will thank you for it!