Close and caring relationships are undeniably linked to health and well-being for all ages. Previous research has shown that individuals with supportive and rewarding relationships have better physical and mental health and lower mortality rates. However, exactly how meaningful relationships affect health has remained less clear.
In a new paper, Carnegie Mellon University’s Brooke Feeney and University of California, Santa Barbara’s Nancy L. Collins detail specific interpersonal processes that explain how close relationships help individuals thrive. Published in “Personality and Social Psychology Review,”Feeney and Collins emphasize two support functions that relationships provide; point out when relationships can do more harm than good; and highlight areas where further research is necessary.
“Relationships enable us to not only cope with stress or adversity, but also to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents and find purpose and meaning in life,” said Feeney, associate professor ofpsychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
According to the researchers, thriving involves five components of well-being: happiness and life satisfaction; having purpose and meaning in life and progressing toward meaningful life goals; psychological well-being (positive self-regard, absence of mental health symptoms/disorders); social well-being (deep and meaningful human connections, faith in others and humanity, positive interpersonal expectancies); and physical well-being (healthy weight and activity levels, health status above expected baselines).
Whether the relationship is with friends, parents, siblings, a spouse or mentors, people will be most likely to thrive with well-functioning close relationships that serve two important functions: enabling them to thrive through adversity and enabling them to thrive in the absence of adversity.
Supportive relationships help people thrive through adversity not only by buffering individuals from negative effects of stress, but also by enabling them to flourish either because of or in spite of their circumstances.
“Relationships serve an important function of not simply helping people return to baseline, but helping them to thrive by exceeding prior baseline levels of functioning,” Feeney said. “We refer to this as source of strength (SOS) support, and emphasize that the promotion of thriving through adversity is the core purpose of this support function.”
Supportive relationships help people thrive in the absence of adversity by enabling them to embrace and pursue opportunities that enhance positive well-being, broaden and build resources and foster a sense of purpose and meaning in life. This type of support is referred to as relational catalyst (RC) support because support providers can serve as active catalysts for thriving in this context. This form of support emphasizes that the promotion of thriving through life opportunities is its core purpose.
The researchers argue that there are certain characteristics of support-providers that enhance their capacity to provide meaningful support.
“It is not just whether someone provides support, but it is how he or she does it that determines the outcome of that support. Any behaviors in the service of providing SOS and RC support must be enacted both responsively and sensitively to promote thriving. Being responsive involves providing the type and amount of support that is dictated by the situation and by the partner’s needs, and being sensitive involves responding to needs in such a way that the support-recipient feels understood, validated, and cared for,” explained Feeney.
Support-providers may inadvertently do more harm than good if they make the person feel weak, needy, or inadequate; induce guilt or indebtedness; make the recipient feel like a burden; minimize or discount the recipient’s problem, goal, or accomplishment; blame the recipient for his or her misfortunes or setbacks; or restrict autonomy or self-determination. Support-providers might also be neglectful or disengaged, over-involved, controlling, or otherwise out of sync with the recipient’s needs.
Support-recipients also play an important role in this process by facilitating or hindering the receipt of responsive support. Support-recipients can cultivate effective support by reaching out to others (vs. withdrawing), expressing needs in a clear and direct manner, being receptive to others’ support efforts, regulating demands on others (not taxing their social network), expressing gratitude, engaging in healthy dependence and independence, building a dense relationship network, and providing reciprocal support.
The researchers emphasize that accepting support when needed, and being willing and able to provide support in return, should cultivate the types of mutually caring relationships that enable people to thrive.
Much of the existing research focuses on how relationships can help in times of stress, and most of this work has focused on self-reports of perceived social support. Feeney and Collins note it will be important for future research to:
- do more assessing of actual support behaviors that are enacted and of the degree to which those behaviors are responsive to the needs of the recipient;
- recognize that social support in adverse life circumstances can do much more than buffer against negative effects of the stressor;
- do more investigating of social support in non-adverse life circumstances;
- work toward understanding mediating pathways and mechanisms of action (with a focus on thriving as the ultimate outcome); and
- focus on close relationships as being central to facilitating or hindering thriving.
Feeney and Collins hope that this framework will provide a foundation for the development of relationship-based interventions aimed at promoting public health. Interventions may focus on building close supportive relationships (e.g., within families or through mentors), and training support-providers to deliver the type of responsive support that fosters growth and thriving.
For more information, visit http://www.psy.cmu.edu/people/feeney.html.