Most of us have always known that relationships - sharing life with loved ones, such as partners, friends, family, children, grandchildren and even pets – is good for us. What has changed is that over the past decade research has consistently found that supportive social connections are fundamental to feeling good. And in a recent UK opinion poll, 73% of people mentioned relationships as the only or one of their definitions of happiness .
Our previous blogs about pathways to happiness focused on positive thoughts and experiences within ourselves. But relationships take the focus outward. Ed Diener’s research tells us that positive relationships contribute to positive experiences. Positive traits like love, kindness, fairness, and social intelligence make it possible for us to make other people happy, and as Christopher Petersen said of positive psychology: “Other people matter"”. Seligman even says that happy people are extremely social.
Other people exist in many different relationships to us, such as friends, lovers, siblings, colleagues, parents, etcetera - and now we are going to take a closer look at generating mutually beneficial positive experiences for some of these relationships.
Spread around a little relationship happiness by positively greeting friends or colleagues with a friendly smile or handshake – so says John Yeager about the power of positive saluting. He believes that a positive greeting involves three pathways to happiness: pleasure, engagement and meaning.
When we greet someone sincerely, it is usually enjoyable for both parties and brings a smile to one’s face. Because one is communicating verbally, visually and kinesthetically it can be quite engaging – providing a sense of flow. If we greet someone or say goodbye to them, use their name, shake their hand or pat their shoulder, we create a pleasant physical response in ourselves and in the person being greeted. Using all our senses in this interaction can be very engaging or flow-like and bring us into the present moment. And an authentic interchange says: “You matter.” Most of us want others to listen to us, to be taken seriously and to matter to others. Whenever we use someone’s name, it makes them experience all of these positive emotions. Our awareness of this fact in turn makes us feel good about ourselves.
Sulynn says that the conscious choice to “be nice” to others can help us thrive even when we find ourselves in trouble. She urges us to stay away from gossip, envy, ill feelings, the need to be right, concern about what others might think about us, and generally self-righteousness. We should smile often and laugh from the belly and find the joy in any interpersonal encounter.
Sulynn further suggests that we should practice this habit of being nice to others because it can sometimes be difficult to adopt new habits, but fortunately for us, as Baumeiste writes, a new habit (positive living) grows stronger - like a muscle - the more we use it. When we experience positive emotions, we send out positive vibes and attract/inspire the same around us. Try it. Smile at EVERYone and watch reactions. Practice random acts of kindness, and then sit back and enjoy the positive glow.
Petersen says there are no happy hermits. The well known study on the very happiest people showed that they all had strong, supportive relationships. Try savoring a great glass of wine or your favorite music on your own – which can be a very pleasant and engaging experience. And then try sharing savoring it with your partner. Take the time to describe to each other every sensory input and feeling it creates and take turns listening to one another. As Amy Donovan says in her article about relationships, savoring-for-two is double the pleasure. Not only does one enjoy the exercise of savoring, but the shared experience results in a sense of closeness with one’s partner and in positive emotions all round. Positive emotions have been shown to broaden and build, meaning that experiencing positive emotions is linked to improving our thought-action repertoire, attention, creativity, and durable personal resources. It seems like a very good reason to plan these positive savoring experiences with a partner, doesn’t it? And it demonstrates how people in strong supportive relationships end up being such happy people.
Marelisa Fabrega reminds us of “elevation”, a term coined by Jonathan Haidt. This puts a bit of a different spin on things, as it is all about the pleasant physical sensation that comes from witnessing goodness in others. Haidt found that it evokes in us a desire to become a better person, or to lead a better life. UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner is a pioneer in the study of elevation and he explains that it’s characterized by a warm, open, pleasant feeling, “liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.” Or we might say that seeing people being nice gives us as a warm and fuzzy feeling. One can feel elevation if you listen to something profound like Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream”, and it can also be triggered by simple things like watching a stranger helping another stranger.
In Haidt’s article he includes an anecdote from Thomas Jefferson’s life. In 1771 Jefferson’s friend Robert Skipwith wrote to him asking for advice on what books to buy for his library. Jefferson sent back a long list of titles in history, philosophy, and natural science. He also included some works of fiction and he justified this advice by pointing to the beneficial emotional effects of great fiction:
“[E]very thing is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any … act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also ... [I ask whether] the fidelity of Nelson, and generosity of Blandford in Marmontel do not dilate [the reader's] breast, and elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and privately covenant to copy the fair example?”
It seems that self transcending emotions really make us want to be better people. Other examples of self-transcending emotions include:
- Awe: That sense of vastness of the universe that is often invoked by nature, art or music.
- Admiration: That goose-bump-making thrill that comes from seeing exceptional skill in action.
- Gratitude: That feeling of well-being that comes from the sense that we live in a world of bounty and generosity.
So it seems despite John-Paul Sartre’s protestations that “Hell is other People,” it appears that the evidence leans firmly towards Christopher Peterson’s summary of positive psychology that “Other People Matter” (2006). Peterson also came up with the following interesting insights about people engaging positively with people:
- People who are sociable and extraverted experience more positive affect (emotion) than those who are not.
- People who spend more time with others are happier than those who spend a lot of time alone.
- People who have many friends are happier than those who have only a few.
- And people who are married are happier than those who are divorced or widowed. A seven decade long Harvard study found that a good marriage at age 50 predicts healthy ageing better than does a low cholesterol level at 50 - George Vaillant .
On the topic of family, Sue Palmer writes in her new bookthat happiness these days can easily be mistaken for being represented by ‘Stuff’ . Sue says of today’s kids that “what they need is Presence, not presents.” Spending time playing with our kids can be one of the most rewarding activities in a day – for both parents and kids.
Virginia Lewis and Dianne Borders found sexual satisfaction to be the second strongest predictor of life satisfaction for single middle-aged professional women, after job satisfaction. No doubt that although this particular study did not include men, the results for them would be similar. Sex seems both to contribute to and reflect how happy we are in a relationship. A mismatch in levels of sexual desire within a couple is associated with poorer relationships (Blais, Sabourin, Boucher and Valler). And heterosexual women’s feelings of love, trust, passion, intimacy and overall relationship satisfaction have been found to correlate with the frequency and quality of sex (Costa and Brody).
Ryan and DecIi came up with some interesting self affirming aspects of a quality sex life:
1. Positive sex happens when both partners are interested and actively choose what to do between the sheets. Rather than enacting scripts, by consciously being aware and able to communicate their own authentic desires their need for autonomywas fulfilled.
2. Partners who felt they knew what they were doing in the bedroom and were able to develop their sensual repertoire fulfilled the basic need for competence.
3. They also felt intimate, desired, loved and respected, fulfilling the need to relate to others.
Sexual expression is an opportunity to experience psychological growth and well-being. There are studies showing that arousal and orgasm also have positive and vital physiological effects, and that it helps us to advance and embrace “the good life” in our relationships.
We often use the word ‘love’ to describe how we feel about the people with whom we share relationships. Cohen thinks that love is probably essential to the human condition. We all need attachments to others; we all need to love and be loved. If not, asks Cohen, why would people write love songs?
Love comes in many different forms – although romantic love is the one we think about when we hear the love songs – falling head over heels, exciting rush of emotions. Jon Haidt explains that in romantic love there are in fact two stages. The first, the one that Hollywood usually celebrates is called Passionate Love. This is the love where we nuzzle, we gaze into each others’ eyes, and we “fall” into love. The second stage of romantic love is called Companionate Love. After you have known someone for a while, once you know his or her quirks, once you have decided to join your lives together, then you are companions, and your love is companionate in nature.
Then there is also the love for our parents, children and friends - all profound kinds of love. Stephen Post gives us different classifications of love. He says that the types of love include:
Oxytocin, a ‘feel good’ hormone is released when we hug one another, and mirror neurons fire when we are communicating with the ones we love. Although there is underlying science, what matters is how love makes us feel. It is about how the way my mother’s hug feels, how that look from him makes my heart beat quicken. We can give it words, we can give it science, but at the end of the day, what we feel borders on the magical, because it happens uniquely to us, in only that rarified situation. When we feel it deep in our hearts and our brains, our need to translate it into words and science recedes into the background. Maybe that’s why we have love songs. They allow us to feel it, to confirm that love does exists, and that people definitely love each other. Other people matter to us.
Next time we look at the M in PERMA – Meaning.
1. The Science of happiness By Mike Rudin BBC Series producer, The Happiness Formula
2. Test your happiness – BBC program.Copyright by Professor Ed Diener, University of Illinois
3. Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press
4. Diener, E., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13, 81-84.
5. I’ve Got A Name – The Power of Positive Salutation by John Yeager (Positive Psychology News Daily)
6. How do you Propose we Share Positive Psychology with Strangers? by Sulynn (Positive Psychology News Daily)
7. Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., Oaten, M. (In press) Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior. Journal of Personality
8. Positive Psychology: Party of Two by Amy Donovan(Positive Psychology News Daily)
9. Pleasant Emotions: Elevation and Other Self-Transcending Emotions by Marelisa Fabrega web article
10. Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (1999). Social functions of emotions at multiple levels of analysis. Cognition and Emotion, 13 (5), 505-522
11. Vaillant, GE (2002), Aging Well, Boston, Little Brown
12. Lucy Ryan:Advice from the Tribesman: Too Simple for the World?
13. Warr, P., & Payne, R.(1982). Experiences of strain and pleasure among British adults. Social Science and Medicine, 16, 1691-1697
14. Sue Palmer: Detoxing Childhood, and 21st Century Boys: how modern life can drive them off the rails, and how we can get them back on track
15. Lewis, V.G., Borders, D. L. (1995). Life satisfaction of single middle-aged professional women. Journal of Counseling and Development, Vol. 74, 93 – 100
16. Blais, M.R., Sabourin, S., Boucher, C., Vallerand, R. J. (1990). Toward a motivational model of couple happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 59, 1021 – 1031.
17. Costa, R. M., Brody, S. (2007). Women’s relationship quality is associated with specifically penile – vaginal intercourse orgasm and frequency. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Vol. 21, 319 – 327
18. Deci, Edward L. (2006). Richard M. Ryan. ed. The Handbook of Self-Determination Research. University of Rochester Press
19. What is Love Anyway? By Aren Cohen (Positive Psychology News Daily)
20. Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
21. Post, S. G. (2003). Unlimited Love: Altruism, Compassion, and Service. Philadelpha, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.