Building Better Relationships, One Positive Moment at a Time
If, like me, you want to live a longer, healthier, happier life, then improving relationships is a great place to invest your time and energy. Relationship investments offer a significant return on investment.
Because as humans we have a strong need to belong, connect and bond, relationships impact our well-being in profound ways. The ability to relate has been crucial to our survival and key to thriving as individuals and as communities, over the ages.
Helliwell and Putnam (2004), studied over 100,000 people across 49 countries and found that trusting and reciprocal social ties were significantly related to happiness and life-satisfaction, and create a positive impact on health. Diener and Seligman (2002) also found satisfying social relationships to be one of the key differentiators between very happy people and unhappy people. Howard Friedman’s Longevity Project - which followed participants for over eight decades - found that having friendships has the highest positive correlation with happiness (Friedman & Martin, 2011).
A meta-analysis of over 50 studies reveal that social support calms the cardiovascular system, lowering blood pressure and stress hormones (Uchino, Uno & Holt-Lunstad, 1999; Uchino, Cacioppo & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996). And for those of you in marriages, the seven decade long Harvard study found that a good marriage at age 50 predicts healthy aging better than low cholesterol at age 50 (Vaillant, 2002).
In 2016, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy stated “social isolation is linked to shorter lives, to cognitive decline, to increased rates of cardiovascular disease, as well as other healthcare concerns”.
Relationships aren’t just a nice to have, they impact our health and well-being in significant ways.
The research is clearly in favour of building positive social supports through relationships, but how do we make this happen? Although our brains are wired for connection, it is often our behaviours that can disrupt our relationship with others.
When I was at the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) conference in Montreal, Shelly Gable asked this question to the audience: What do you believe would be a better predictor of a good relationship, how you respond to good news or bad news?
She then revealed that her research found that what distinguishes good and poor relationships is not how we respond to one another’s disappointments, but how we respond to good news!
Shelly Gable et al. (2004) research looked at motivation, positive emotions and close relationships, inviting couples into their lab to share some good news with their partner. Her research revealed that responses to positive disclosures were either constructive or destructive, resulting in encouraging or discouraging effects on those who try to connect with us by sharing personal experiences. These responses were also noted as active or passive, showing either engagement or detachment/indifference. The four different types of behavioural responses we can choose are:
Active Destructive Responding (ADR),
Active Constructive Responding (ACR),
Passive Destructive Responding (PDR) or
Passive Constructive Responding (PCR).
Some examples of each:
Scenario: Your partner just got a promotion at work and they share the good news with you.
Passive Constructive Responding (PCR): “Oh, that’s nice sweetie…” (Quiet, low energy acknowledgment, smile or nod to show support, followed by quick change of subject).
Passive Destructive Responding (PDR): “Oh yeah, well listen to what happened to me today…” (Little to no eye contact, seeming to ignore the event, shows indifference, changes the focus to self).
Active Destructive Responding (ADR): “Oh! That means you have to work more hours, that’s going to be tough and will cause a strain on our relationship” (Negative non-verbals, focuses on the negative and quashing the positive event).
Active Constructive Responding (ACR): “Oh, that’s great news! So, what happened? Tell me more!” (Enthusiastic support, showing genuine interest by inquiring for more details, helping to savour and acknowledge the positive with the other).
Of the four responses, only the Active Constructive Response (ACR) leads to a stronger relationship, as the person sharing feels understood, valued and cared for. For romantic relationships ACR has shown to lead to increased passion, intimacy and resilience. For professional, family and friendships it leads to increased emotional well-being and better relationship quality.
The good news here is it’s possible to change your response type in the moment. ACR is a habit and a choice you make moment-to-moment. Good happens, and when it does, people often seek to share the news. When they do so, by choosing ACR you are able to help extend, deepen and savour the good. Asking questions can help the process of retelling and reliving their experience. This helps to build up the relationship, whereas the other responses can undermine what is good for both of you in those situations. People are unlikely to share their good news if they anticipate rejection, defensiveness, or an otherwise unappreciative response. Feeling happy for and with others can increase positive interactions boosting cognitive performance in terms of speed of processing and working memory performance (Ybarra et al., 2008), along with increasing moments of joy and happiness for yourself and those around you. Happiness is contagious - find it, feel it, savour it and share it with others.
You now have the ability to start responding to those around you in a way that will affect both their happiness and your own by choosing to build up and strengthen the relationships you are in.
Positive relationships are valuable resources worth investing in. As Chris Peterson, one of the founders of Positive Psychology stated “other people matter”. Now you have the skills to show them.
Written by Amy Capern, PITC Student Therapist. Learn More about Amy.
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological science, 13(1), 81-84.
Friedman, H. S., & Martin, L. R. (2011). The longevity project: surprising discoveries for health and long life from the landmark eight decade study. Hay House, Inc.
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(2), 228.
Helliwell, J. F., & Putnam, R. D. (2004). The social context of well–being. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1435-1446.
Stallard, M. (2017). America’s No. 1 Health Problem is Not What You Expect. Government Executive, 1.
Uchino, B. N., Cacioppo, J. T., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (1996). The relationship between social support and physiological processes: a review with emphasis on underlying mechanisms and implications for health. Psychological bulletin, 119(3), 488.
Uchino, B. N., Uno, D., & Holt-Lunstad, J. (1999). Social support, physiological processes, and health. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(5), 145-148.
Vaillant, G. E. (2002). The study of adult development. Looking at lives: American longitudinal studies of the twentieth century, 424-447.