Last week I tried to convince you that happiness is other people. This week I want to discuss how we can nurture our relationships. It is possible that not much is new for you, but I hope you will find it a good reminder.
Connecting with other human beings and sharing life with others fulfils a deep human need. When Baumeister and Leary reviewed research in support of the argument that belonging is a fundamental human motivation, they checked whether this was true for all peoples of the world. It is. Baumeister and Leary also found that social bonds form easily; that we are reluctant to break them; and that our concern with belonging strongly affects our thinking and our emotions even more so. If we feel that we belong, many positive emotions follow, whereas feeling rejected, excluded or ignored will lead to potent negative feelings. They further point out that not having good and stable relationships is linked to multiple, diverse troubles.1
The relationships that have the strongest impact on psychological wellbeing and most satisfy our need to belong are positive, close attachments with partners, close friends or family. If you don’t have a partner or a family capable of primarily positive interactions, friends can provide the closeness you need.2
Sonja Lyubormirksy’s first advice is to make time for those we care about. We need to regularly touch base to maintain inctimacy.3 Nowadays many people are time poor and like to compensate ‘quantity’ with ‘quality time’. However, Baumeister and Leary found that the frequency of interactions does in fact matter if a relationship is to meet our need for belonging.4
The next important aspect is to nurture communication. A relationship is psychologically intimate when we can disclose what is going on beneath the surface. According to Lyubomirsky, intimacy is created by sharing thoughts and feelings. However, communication is not just about talking; it requires listening, paying attention and acknowledging what people are saying.5 Harvey, Pauwels and Zickmund point out that we foster communication when we are interested in others and actively encourage them to express themselves. In doing so, they write, we need to accept and respect others’ unique personalities and backgrounds, including their needs and opinions, and be willing to work out compromises that accommodate these. Without an atmosphere of acceptance and respect, people will not want to disclose anything personal, because they fear rejection or embarrassment.6 Would you open up to someone who continuously changes the subject back to themselves, who is judgemental or overbearing with advice, or plays with the phone while you are telling them your troubles? Yet if we want people to ‘be there’ for us, we need to ‘be there’ for them, too.
Further, Baumeister and Leary found that it matters significantly whether there is affection in our relationships.7 Lyubomirsky advises that it is good to express our feelings of admiration and fondness in both partnerships and friendships. We need to do this in a way that feels comfortable, for us as well as those we hold dear. But do let them know that you care and that they matter.8
Being a good friend or partner also requires that we are loyal and supportive. Lyubomirsky points out that we need to stand up for our friends, keep their secrets, and refrain from criticising their other friends.9 This applies to partnerships as well. And of course, a friend in need is a friend indeed. We all know this. However, fewer of us know that the difference between good and poor relationships is less revealed by how partners respond to each other’s setbacks and disappointing news, and more by how much they celebrate each other’s triumphs. According to Lyubomirsky, we need to strive to respond with enthusiasm to the good fortune of someone close, even if it is challenging. Sometimes we cannot help but feel a little envious.10 The bottom line is that if we really care for someone, it means wishing them the very best regardless of how our life is proceeding. Baumeister and Leary note that belongingness can overcome self-interested behaviour.11 I say it must.
Lastly, relationships are nurtured by hugging. According to Lyubomirsky, in a study conducted at Pennsylvania State University, hugging was found to increase happiness. Lyubomirsky considers it an “excellent intimacy and friendship booster”.12 Hug those who matter often, and see if there are others who need, and would appreciate, a friendly hug.
If you have lost a significant person to death, separation, or for other reasons, you will know how extremely painful this is. However, Baumeister and Leary write that belonging can be re-directed, and that to some extent, the loss of a relationship with one person can be substituted by another. They argue that the only significant obstacle for this is that a new relationship takes time to grow and accumulate shared experience and intimacy. Further, they suggest that people tend to bond when they are ‘thrown together’ and are forced to spend time with each other. Views of each other tend to become more favourable the more time we spend together, and often we overcome previous dislikes or stereotypes.13
A few years ago I joined a choir almost exclusively made up of retirees. On arriving, one bossy woman questioned whether I would be allowed to sing; another asked whether they needed any new sopranos. Then there was a discussion on whether there was room for me in a row. In subsequent rehearsals, I was bossed around to stand here, no there, and told off for trying to tape the music so I could learn it faster. Arriving at a dress rehearsal, I was chided for wearing my shirt in rather than out and criticised for not wearing black stockings. “What a horrible bunch,” I finally concluded. Then, during this dress rehearsal, the music got to me. As I was in the middle of separating from an initially promising partner, I was feeling fragile. I burst into tears and ran to hide in the back rooms. But the ladies tracked me down. They dried my tears, brought me a cup of tea and made me laugh. It had taken time, but there was suddenly a bond. From that point on I belonged to the choir, and they were lovely.
Lyubomirsky argues that “friendships don’t just happen, they are made”.14 Close, intimate relationships need to be cherished and nurtured. But they really are an awesome investment on the psychological wellbeing account.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015