The benefits of happy relationships

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 3 of The Year of Happy‘s month on relationships. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

Do we really need science to tell us that relationships are happiness-inducing?

Some of the benefits below might seem obvious, but others – particularly the effect of relationships on health and performance – might just surprise you. We’re people who need people.

The benefits of social connections

More happiness and positive emotions. “Resonant relationships are like emotional vitamins, sustaining us through tough times and nourishing us daily,” writes Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.

Many studies have found that measures of social life – having strong relationships, the size of our social network, being part of social organizations, and even trust in societal institutions – are highly linked to well-being. People in the top 10% of happiness, for example, also have the most active social lives. The famous 75-year Grant Study of male Harvard students found that social support predicts happiness much better than GPA, income, SAT scores, age, gender, or race, and a survey of over 1,000 American women found that the people they spent time with predicted their happiness more than income, job pressure, and marital status.

One study even found that regularly seeing your neighbor gives you the same happiness boost as making an extra $60,000 a year. Another study measured people’s moment-to-moment happiness throughout the day and – surprise! – the most pleasurable activities were sex and socializing.

One of the reasons for this is that “hedonic adaptation” doesn’t apply as much to relationships. When we get money, we want more money; but when we get kids, we don’t keep wanting more kids to the same extent. We don’t need to keep up with the Joneses in the offspring department.

Better health. Numerous studies over the years have shown that people with more social support are healthier and live longer. The physical presence of family and friends actually lowers our blood pressure, and having more relationships makes us more resistant to catching the common cold.

The Roseto effect got its name from a town in Pennsylvania that had no deaths from heart disease in a 50-year-study, which came as a shock to researchers. They searched and searched to discover what made Roseto different, and the answer was not their diet, which consisted of lots of red meat, lard, and alcohol. Instead, the answer was social connection: Roseto’s Italian-American inhabitants had many friends, lived in three-generation family homes, and supported other community members in need. And when this uniquely intense social connectedness was lost, residents started to die from heart disease.

Finally, over a dozen studies have linked social connection to lower mortality rates. If you’ve got more social connections, you’re more likely to stay alive and kickin’ – no matter how old you are.

Better coping. The “emotional vitamins” of social connection come in handy when life throws us curveballs. Social support reduces stress by making things seem less stressful, combating the physical effects of stress, and helping us recover from stress faster.

Social connections may even help us heal. Social interaction makes skin wounds health faster and may offer some protection against arthritis. Patients with congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, angina, and heart attacks have better prognoses when they have more emotional support. And even pets can make a difference: the second-best predictor of survival for cardiac patients in one study – after the extent of damage to the heart – was having a pet. (And not because the pet was prone to Lassie-like acts of heroism.) 

Relationships not only help us cope with stress and illness, but also with a challenging environment. In poor neighborhoods of Chicago, for example, positive personal connections are associated with lower crime rates, less drug use, and fewer unwanted teen pregnancies. Perhaps relationships give us a healthy outlet for our anger and sorrow.

If you ever doubted the ability of technology to facilitate real connection, check out the ways that performance artist Ze Frank has used it to bring people together and combat stress and anxiety:

Better performance. Finally, as any good networker will tell you, relationships help us get ahead in life. Relationships can actually improve our cognitive function, as was the case for elderly people: having a supportive social life predicted their cognitive abilities seven years later.

Earlier in life, young students who feel connected to their teachers, other students, and their school perform better academically, in addition to having lower rates of violence, bullying, vandalism, anxiety and depression, drug use, suicide, truancy, and dropping out.

Relationships can make us more creative: children playing closer to their mothers are more creative, as if love provides them a safe space to experiment. And relationships continue to affect us on the level of corporations and societies: company productivity can be linked back to social capital, and more trusting countries have higher annual economic growth. Traditionally seen as “touchy-feely,” relationships may be the very foundation of profit and success. 

The benefits of friendships

More happiness. “Friends can be our main source of moral support, midwives to our dreams, and generous suppliers of love, humor, and understanding,” writes Carlin Flora in Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are.

Which would you prefer, a $50,000 raise or a new friend? One study found that having a friend we see on most days gives us the same happiness boost as a $100,000 raise. If we have three close friends at the office, we are 96% more likely to be extremely satisfied with life.

And happy friends are even better. According to Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks, a happy friend increases our probability of being happy by 9%. Part of the reason is that we absorb the moods of people around us, and part of it is that our friend’s happiness makes us happy: thinking of our friend’s happiest moment in life activates similar brain areas to our own happiest moment.

Listen to the podcast “Do You Have Enough Friends?”

More positive emotions. A much-cited study by psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that we’re most happy when we’re with friends, more so than with spouses or relatives or children (or coworkers or customers or bosses). Are you surprised?

According to Carolyn Weisz of the University of Puget Sound, friends give us something called “social identity support”: they clarify our sense of self and make us feel belonging in a group. The more social identity support we get from a friend, the more likely they will become a best friend.

Fewer negative emotions. Of course, friends make us feel less lonely – having a few extra friends can decrease our loneliness by an average of 10%. (Interestingly, spouses have a small effect on our loneliness, and family members have no effect at all.) Teens who have a few close reciprocal friends are less likely to be anxious, depressed, or aggressive – less angsty, you might say.

Better health. If your blood pressure is pumping, think of a buddy – just imagining a friend (in addition to actually being with one) lowers blood pressure. That might be part of the reason why friendship was shown to decrease the risk of heart attack for Swedish men for at least six years. Like social connections in general, friendships can help keep us alive: having a solid group of friends or a high level of peer support at work reduces our risk of death significantly.

Better coping. You don’t need studies to tell you that friends can reduce stress, but they’ve been done anyway. Even 5th and 6th graders, after a stressful social interaction, have lower cortisol levels if a best friend is nearby.

Laughing with friends literally makes us tolerate pain better, increasing our physical pain threshold by 10%. And breast cancer patients with ten or more friends have a mortality rate that’s 10 times less than their less well-connected peers.

Watch this beautiful speech on how friends help us cope by author Kelly Corrigan:

Better performance. If we stand at the bottom of a hill with a heavy backpack, having a friend at our side actually makes us perceive the hill as less steep. But besides their mountain-climbing benefits, friends can also help us excel at school, work, and life.

Although passing notes at school is discouraged, people who talk to a friend for a few minutes actually have better memory and a stronger ability to suppress distractions. Students doing moderately well in school who befriend high achievers can actually increase their GPA, as good habits and values rub off on them.

Once we enter the workforce, friends and friends-of-friends (thanks, LinkedIn) can be particularly helpful in getting us an interview or a new job. And the benefits don’t stop when we sign the contract: people with a best friend at work are more likely to engage customers, be more productive, have fun at work, have a safe workplace with fewer accidents, innovate and share ideas, feel informed, know their opinions count, and focus on their strengths each day. A close friend at work also makes us see our paycheck positively – something to keep in mind if you’re a boss. Finally, people who have good friendship skills at age 20 are more likely to be successful at work 10 years later.

The benefits of romantic relationships

More than friends and even family, popular culture tells us that the key to a happy life is finding our soulmate. Does the research back up our romantic notions of happily ever after?

More happiness and positive emotions. Like having a close friend, being married also gives us an estimated $100,000 worth of happiness per year. Marriage is a stronger predictor of happiness than community, job satisfaction, or even money.

Stick people in an MRI machine, have them read a letter from a loved one about how the person feels about them, and you’ll see activity in the ventral striatum (which is involved in physical pleasures). Love really feels good.

Of course, not all relationships are happy. People in bad marriages are less happy than divorced or single people. Partners will be happier to the extent that they have positive illusions of each other – he’s the sweetest man in the world! – which cause them to look on the bright side and try to live up to their partner’s idealistic illusion.

Better health. As relationship researcher John Gottman and his team have observed, our relationship with our partner can literally change our physiology, jostling our heart rate and blood pressure with the ups and downs of our interactions. So it’s no surprise that married people have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than singles, widows, or divorcées and tend to live longer than singles, as well. 

Quality matters here, too. One study out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that women who got the most hugs from their partner had higher baseline oxytocin levels and lower blood pressure and heart rates, which are bound to have long-term health effects.

Better coping. Those effects show up in the midst of diseases that tax our bodies and minds. Patients in better, more stable partnerships progress through HIV/AIDS more slowly and have a higher likelihood of surviving congestive heart failure (for four years, at least).

Romantic relationships benefit the physical heart (not just the metaphorical one) by protecting us against stress. A 2008 study found that people who spend more intimate time together have lower levels of cortisol.

Finally, another well-cited study found that women who hold their husband’s hand while getting an electric shock feel less anxious, while a stranger’s hand only helps a little. And the more satisfied the women were with their marriages, the greater the benefit.

Better performance. We might say that our partner inspires us to chase after our dreams, but how exactly do they do it? One study looked at just that, asking couples to have conversations about their goals. It turns out that when our partner is warm, positive, and sensitive during this type of conversation, we end up more confident than when we started; but if they’re intrusive and controlling, we tend to become downbeat and insecure – and set the bar lower for ourselves.

Attachment theory is also relevant here. If our partner acts as a secure home base for us, we become more willing to go out and pursue life’s opportunities. Although a “home base” is an abstract concept, it works literally, too: simply knowing that a comfortable home and supportive spouse await us at night can give us strength for the day’s obstacles. 

Some researchers call this dynamic – how romantic partners bring out the best in each other – the Michelangelo effect. Like a block of marble being carved into a masterpiece, we move toward our ideal selves.

In short, relationships are priceless. What’s the biggest benefit you get from your best friend? Your partner? Tell us about them on the Year of Happy Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 2: How to cultivate relationships

Move on to Week 4: When relationships are hard, try this

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

2 thoughts on “The benefits of happy relationships

  1. Thanks for this great article! I am curious about the statement under Better performance you mention a study on the benefits of social connection in cognition of the elderly, which source does this come from? I am interested for an essay I am working on. Much appreciated! Fiona


    • Hi Fiona! The study is Teresa E. Seeman et al., “Social Relationships, Social Support, and Patterns of Cognitive Aging in Healthy, High-Functioning Older Adults,” Health Psychology 4 (2001), pp. 243-55.


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