What are happy relationships?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 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. 

Unlike gratitude or mindfulness, relationships seem to come naturally to most of us (at least a little bit). More than 95% of people in the world have friends, and 70% of the conversations we have revolve around the social world. Even our brains are wired to be social, with special networks that give us insight into what other people are thinking and feeling. In our digital world, over a billion people seek out connections on Facebook with friends, family, and other contacts.

Read on to find out what makes us feel connection, how friendships vary by age, and the three types of healthy romantic relationships.


You’ve probably experienced that intangibly intense feeling of connection to someone, when you feel wholly engaged, understood, and “on the same wavelength.”

Psychologists call that feeling “rapport,” and University of California, Riverside, professor Robert Rosenthal defined three elements of rapport:

  • Mutual attention. We’re both paying attention to each other (no day dreaming or smartphones allowed).
  • Shared positive feeling. Our tone of voice and facial expressions show each other that we’re both enjoying the interaction and feeling good.
  • Coordination (synchrony). Our timing, posture, gestures, and even breathing sync up in a delicate dance that happens automatically. As a result, conversation flows smoothly without jarring interruptions, and silence is comfortable rather than awkward.

We start learning rapport as soon as we’re born, as we exchange looks, touches, and babble with our mothers. This kind of interaction is the foundation for later moments of connection, which of course add layers of complexity through language. 

You can see the beginnings of rapport in this Soul Pancake experiment, as strangers have a conversation in a ball pit that culminates in the coordination of a secret handshake:

How childhood influences our relationships

Human beings are wired with three systems for love: caregiving, sex, and attachment. When we care for others, we feel concern for them and provide help and support. Sex allows us to procreate and pass on our genes, and the attachment system urges us to get close to others.

Rapport helps us build relationships, but what happens once we’re in them? Then, our “attachment style” determines how we relate to partners and friends.

If our attachment system is healthy, we have a “secure” style. We’re comfortable getting close to someone and don’t worry about abandonment. In general, we expect others to be reliable, emotionally available, and good-intentioned, and we see ourselves as worthy of care, concern, and affection. It’s a state between dependence and independence. Some estimate that 55% of Americans have a secure style.

Parents whose children have a secure style tend to be empathic, responsive to their needs, and affectionate. Children can depend on them for love, attention, and comfort, which helps them explore the world with less fear. Securely attached preschoolers enjoy being friends with others and cooperate more.

If we have an unhealthy attachment style, we are either avoidant – uncomfortable getting close, trusting, and being dependent on someone – or anxious – afraid of not being loved or not being close enough. People with an avoidant style may have had mothers who were smothering, while people with an anxious style may have had distant or neglectful caregivers.

The Portland Therapy Center explains the three attachment styles in this easy-to-understand video:

Interestingly, the quality of the relationship parents have with each other can affect their children’s relationships. Parents who have friends they see regularly tend to have children with healthy relationships themselves. Mom’s and Dad’s ability to regulate their emotions rubs off on their kids, as well: parents who are angry, contemptuous, or withdrawn when they fight tend to have kids who are demanding, angry, and hostile with their peers. But when their parents are warm and empathic – even if they fight – children tend to get along better with their peers and resolve disputes more effectively.


Who needs friends when we’ve got family?

Scientists have asked this very question, wondering what evolutionary advantage our ancestors got from building friendships. And they’ve concluded that friends were a valuable asset: they provided life-giving support – like sharing food or helping us hunt – when our family was absent or simply not able to help.

As young as one year old, babies prefer to play with certain babies more than others – in other words, they have friends. As time goes on, friendships become more complex and move beyond babbling incoherently and shaking rattles together. From ages 9-12, we begin to seek out friends who have positive character traits (like standing up for others) and provide us with emotional connection. We seek advice, companionship, and validation from our friends, who become privy to our innermost thoughts and secrets. Adolescents need emotional support more than ever, and they get it from their friends even more than their parents. American teens spend an average of 18.4 hours outside the classroom with friends, and 94% of Americans ages 8-24 have a best friend.

Carlin Flora, the author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, sees friendship as a paradox. “It’s both the most stable and the most flexible of the relationships we have throughout life,” she says. While we’re born with family, we choose our friends – and we don’t make legal commitments to them as we do with our spouses. As a result, friendships are ever-changing throughout life: one Dutch study found that half of our close friends are lost every seven years. Yet friendships are incredibly meaningful to us, providing us with support, positivity, affection, and fun.

Researcher Tom Rath of Gallup identified eight roles our friends play, which may or may not overlap in a single friend:

  • Builders motivate us to succeed.
  • Champions stand up for us and have our back.
  • Collaborators share interests or beliefs.
  • Companions would sacrifice for the friendship.
  • Connectors make introductions and extend invitations.
  • Energizers are fun, positive people who can cheer us up or calm us down.
  • Mind Openers expose us to new ideas, questions, and opinions.
  • Navigators help us make decisions and work toward goals.

A friendship grows as we disclose more and more of ourselves and break through the barriers of small talk and social convention. We may keep track of the friendly give-and-take in the beginning – you pay for a coffee, I give you a ride – but eventually we trust each other and stop keeping track. We do more and more activities together and learn to communicate, read each other’s emotions, and resolve conflicts – our friends are about 50% more accurate at guessing our thoughts (when watching us have a conversation) than a stranger would be. The longer we’re friends with someone, the more likely we are to stay friends with them.

Romantic relationships

Friends also prove useful in our romantic life: friends introduce us to 35-40% of our sexual partners. What happens next is a bit different from the progression of friendship. We begin to flirt, a complex back-and-forth that stimulates interest and releases dopamine. Our emotions rule the day, at least until we strike up a conversation with a potential partner. Then, as Daniel Goleman explains in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, we try to assess the flirtee for warmth, responsiveness, and reciprocity (which are characteristics of a good parent – thanks, evolution).

As he explains it, romantic feelings begin to develop when we achieve synchrony, one of the three elements of rapport mentioned above. We cultivate intimacy through cuddles and caresses, whispers and nicknames, and eventually we become attached to each other.

Read “What Neuroscience Tells Us about Being in Love,” and then watch anthropologist Helen Fisher explain this neuroscience:

So what makes a healthy romantic relationship? Relationship expert John Gottman has spent over 20 years researching couples – listening to their conversations, analyzing their facial expressions and body movements, and tracking their heart rates. (He’s famous for being able to predict with 94% accuracy whether a couple will get divorced in the next three years.) He boils the formula for a healthy relationship down to two things: positivity and relationship style.

Healthy romantic relationships, he observes, have at least a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions. But the way to achieve a 5:1 ratio is different for different couples – some minimize negative interactions and don’t need to spend much time connecting positively, while others fight often and make up for it with lots of ebullient love and fun. Here are the three healthy types of romantic relationships that Gottman has observed:

  1. Validating. Validators are skilled at validation, which means listening to and showing understanding for our partner. As a result, arguments between validators tend to be fairly structured: they begin by listening and validating, try to persuade each other, and eventually reach a solution. Validators are good communicators and tend to remain calm during discussions. They also have a strong sense of togetherness, friendship, and affection: they are a unit. Many validating couples embrace traditional values and traditional roles for men and women in the home. (The risk for validating couples is that they don’t retain enough of their individuality, and passion gives way to lukewarm companionship.)
  2. Volatile. Arguments between volatile couples are your stereotypical fights: hide the plates and don’t expect to get a word in edgewise. Volatile couples put a lot of value on honesty, which means expressing negative emotions even when they might be painful to hear. In contrast to the validating couple’s happy interdependence, volatile couples retain more of their independence, privacy, and equality. This might not seem like a healthy relationship style, but Gottman’s research has shown that it’s a stable one. Volatile couples can still retain that 5:1 ratio – they make up for arguments with extra affection and passion. (Volatile relationships are at risk when these positive interactions decrease, or their honesty becomes too brutal to handle.)
  3. Avoidant. Avoidant relationships are another style that might seem unhealthy at first but has been proven to last. Avoidant couples are conflict avoiders: rather than hashing out issues with logic or screaming, they tend to agree to disagree. They may confront each other with differing perspectives on an issue, but in the end nothing is resolved – to them, the relationship is more important than any difference of opinion. Avoidant couples retain their independence like volatile couples, but they don’t share enough to cultivate much companionship. (Their biggest challenge is the risk of loneliness and the fact that they don’t really know how to handle disagreements – so a serious one could break them up.)

It’s possible to have a hybrid relationship, mixing and matching elements from each of these types. But the most important thing is that we agree with our partner on a style – if we don’t, we’ll constantly be having meta-arguments about what a proper relationship or discussion means.

Relationships are universal, yet there’s so much to learn and explore about them. Are you most looking forward to learning about friendships or romantic relationships this month? Let us know on the Year of Happy Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to cultivate relationships

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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