Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Relationships and happiness

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Social relationships and happiness:
What is the role of social relationships in happiness?
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Introduction[edit]

Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship
- Epicurus

What is happiness? Is there a relationship between your level of happiness and the quality of your social relationships? Whilst many of us may not have thought specifically about how happiness is categorically defined, it is almost certain that when we are unhappy, we know about it! Contrastingly, when we are happy with who we are and how our life is going, we’re much more inclined to want to hang out with friends and foster new social relationships. So what is this happiness concept, and how do our social relationships play a role in our own level of happiness?

The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology (APA, 2007) defines happiness as “an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction and well-being.” With happiness defined as an emotion, this implies the emotion is subjective and can change depending on how we pursue it. Interestingly, some studies have found that the pursuit of happiness itself paradoxically leads to unhappiness (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson & Savino, 2011). Therefore, this suggests happiness may be an outcome of the pursuit of other aspects in life. The Dalai Lama says happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others (Uchida & Kitayama, 2009).

If you read further today, this book aims to demonstrate the role social relationships play in determining one's level of personal happiness. Metaphorically speaking, a ship changing its course by even one degree can cause a total change in its final sailing destination. Similarily, a change in the way you foster and cultivate relationship with yourself and others may change your sailing destination from an unhappy life to one filled with eudaimonia.

Early social relationships and personality traits[edit]

The ability to recognise and communicate happiness develops from infancy in a social context

Many studies suggest our ability to foster a happy life begins with the quality of our social connections right from infancy (Mumme & Fernald, 2003; Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2006; Vaish, Grossman & Woodward, 2008). Beginning in infancy, social influences play a part in developing our personality constructs (Furnham & Cheng, 1999).

A meta-analysis by Steel, Schmidt and Shultz (2008) examined the relationship between a range of personality traits and the ability to foster happiness (defined as subjective well-being) across the lifespan. Steel et al., (2008) conducted a literature review of 347 samples which used the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI) and the Neuroticism-Extroversion-Openness Inventory (NEO) (all versions) as measures of personality constructs. A total of 122 588 participants were included in the samples, predominately from Western countries. Whilst the mostly Western focus of the study could be considered a limitation, critically reviewing happiness and relationships outside of the Western focus is beyond the scope of this project. The sample was 45% male, and the research methodology was almost exclusively self-report.

Results from the NEO scales showed strong correlations between happiness and almost all of the personality constructs (neuroticism, r = -.46; extraversion, r = .49; agreeableness, r = .30; conscientiousness, r = .25; and openness to experience, r = .13). Results from the EPI also showed strong correlations with happiness and most of the personality constructs (neuroticism, r = -.44; extraversion, r = .41; psychoticism, r = -.10; and defensiveness, r = .12). This suggests the relationship between personality and happiness is much stronger than previously thought and reported in the literature (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998).

If the relationship between personality and happiness is significant, this provides strong empirical evidence for the importance of social relationships right from infancy. A number of meta-analyses show desirable personality traits are malleable during early developmental years (Card, 2010; Ferguson, 2010), indicating an infant’s personality can be developed during this sensitive period through positive social relationships (Steel et al., 2008).

Contrastingly, a meta-analysis by Kotov, Gamez, Schmidt and Watson (2010) demonstrated the negative influence social relationships can have on personality development, with common mental disorders strongly linked to negative personality traits. All diagnostic groups (depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders) were high on neuroticism (mean Cohen's d = 1.65) and low on conscientiousness (mean Cohen's d = -1.01). The pattern illustrated by these meta-analyses is that social relationships play a vital role in the early development of personality traits, and desirable personality traits are essential for one to foster happiness across the lifespan.

Erikson's theory of psychosocial development[edit]

Psychosocial Stages of Development

  1. Infancy: Trust v Mistrust
  2. Toddlerhood: Autonomy v Shame
  3. Preschool: Initiative v Guilt
  4. Childhood: Industry v Inferiority
  5. Adolescence: Identity v Role Confusion
  6. Young Adulthood: Intimacy v Isolation
  7. Middle Adulthood: Generativity v Stagnation
  8. Late Adulthood: Integrity v Despair

If the development of desirable personality traits is correlated with happiness over the lifespan, how do we develop such traits? Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development posits desirable personality traits are developed in the context of learning how to be a social being, and this occurs right from infancy (Nosko, Tieu, Lawford & Pratt, 2011). Erikson’s theory posits such development unfolds in a series of predetermined stages over the lifespan, with an optimal time for the ascendancy of each stage, and resolution of the early stages greatly influencing the outcomes of later stages (Dunkel & Sefcek, 2009). Healthy psychosocial development at each stage is said to be based on proper resolution of the preceding stages (Whitbourne, Sneed & Sayer, 2009).

Schwartz (2001) states the first stage of Erikson’s theory is the development of trust, versus mistrust. If one develops a basic sense of trust, it is more likely the individual will develop along a path which establishes intimacy. The second stage is autonomy versus doubt, where one develops willpower and self-control. The third stage, of initiative versus guilt, becomes salient as the child is able to initiate a sense of purpose. The fourth stage is industry versus inferiority where children are challenged to develop a sense of competence. The fifth stage is identity versus role confusion. Here an adolescent is faced with the task of developing a sense of self-continuity.

The sixth stage of psychosocial development involves the challenge of attaining intimacy versus isolation, and represents the ability to share with and commit to another person. Resolution of this stage typically involves successful acquisition and maintenance of close relationships and the establishment of a sense of contentment in life through interconnection with others (Erikson, 1950). The seventh stage is generativity versus stagnation. At this stage, the adult is faced with the task of productivity and working to shape the next generation. The final stage is integrity versus despair, where in old age one looks back to see if life’s pathway was successful and filled with happiness (Schwartz, 2001).

Erikson’s Theory suggests happiness is an outcome of successful growth through the stages of psychosocial development, and this growth occurs in the context of fulfilling social relationships. A longitudinal study by Waldinger & Schultz (2010) support this idea, investigating day-to-day links between perceived happiness and time spent with others in 47 octogenarian couples over an eight day period. The study revealed significant results for men and women in terms of greater reported happiness based on time spent with others (friends and an intimate partner). The study did not investigate the quality of the intimate partner relationships, which may confound the significant results for happiness ratings. Erikson's theory demonstrates social relationships play a vital role in psychosocial development, and healthy psychosocial development is essential for one to foster happiness across the lifespan.

The psychological need for relatedness[edit]

Michelle is 35 years old and she's never had a relationship last longer than two years! Though she tries to make someone love her, Michelle finds it incredibly difficult to trust. It is common for Michelle to think to herself "I'm the only person I should ever rely on". She is suspicious of anything in the relationship she can't control; even if her partner repeatedly says "I love you", she secretly doesn't trust that he means it. Michelle just found out she was adopted as a toddler. Prior to the adoption, she was nursed as an infant by a range of foster carers. Her ability to trust feels more depleted now she knows her mum is not her "real mum". Michelle is dreadfully unhappy and feels so alone in the world. According to Erikson's theory, Michelle needs to reconcile her mistrust of others if she is ever going to have a happy and secure relationship.

The psychological need to feel connected, understood and appreciated by those close to us is a fundamental building block for human happiness (Duckworth, Steen & Seligman, 2005; Frederickson, 1998; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005; Sheldon & Niemiec, 2006; Ryan, 1995). Considerable research supports the theoretical framework of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which posits the psychological need for relatedness to others as a significant component of human happiness (Buss, 2000; Kasser & Ryan, 1999; LaGuardia, Ryan, Couchman & Deci, 2000).

In the context of SDT, relatedness can be defined as a human orientation towards forming strong and stable interpersonal bonds (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Whilst relationships between intimate partners and friends provide the most reciprocal facets (LaGuardia & Patrick, 2008), many studies show it does not make a difference what sort of relationships one has (for example, siblings, parent-child); rather, it’s the presence of strong interpersonal bonds which are linked to happiness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

As an expression of the human motivation towards strong interpersonal bonds, a study by Ackerman, Griskevicius and Li (2011) investigated whether men or women are more likely to express love first in romantic relationships. The study found significant results for the first confession of love coming from the male (61.5% of the sample size). Results from Ackerman et al., (2011) conflict with results from other studies investigating beliefs about which gender confesses love first; stereotypical beliefs are centered on a woman confessing love first (Fabes & Martin, 1991; Gonzalez & Koestner, 2006). The results from Ackerman et al., (2011) suggest despite the influence of stereotypical societal beliefs, both men and women are innately wired to make strong interpersonal connections. This suggests close personal relatedness is associated with high levels of happiness for both genders (Baumeister et al., 1995).

Positive psychology and relationships[edit]

The Four Pillars & Relationships

  • Virtue: What kind of person are you in your relationships with others?
  • Meaning: Do your relationships have meaning?
  • Resilience: Do you persist through the difficult times in relationships?
  • Well-Being: Are your relationships happy and flourishing?

At the individual level, positive psychology is the study of human happiness (Gable & Haidt, 2005). The theory of positive psychology was (allegedly!) conjured up during a holiday conversation in 1993 between two prominent psychologists; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman (Wong, 2011). Seligman’s (1998) primary reason for launching the positive psychology movement was to step away from what he saw as an excessive focus on psychopathology, towards a move into helping individuals develop happiness through a focus on four guiding “pillars” of aspiration. Wong (2010; 2011) describes the four pillars as; virtue, meaning, resilience and well-being.

Virtue is concerned with what kind of person one wants to be and what kind of values one wants to possess. Meaning is largely a focus on life purpose, finding intimacy and developing strong social relationships. Resilience is about how one copes when faced with challenges, and the psychology of well-being is about a motivation towards positive growth. An individual can live a life of virtue, meaning, resilience and well-being by espousing these “pillars” in their social relationships (McNulty & Fincham, 2011). Many studies support the expression of virtue, meaning, resilience and well-being in relationships as a strong predictor of human happiness and intrapersonal growth (Cohn, Fredrickson, Brown, Mikels & Conway, 2009; Krisjansson, 2010; Lambert & Fincham, 2011).

Eudaimonic happiness[edit]

Relatedness to others fosters eudaimonia

Intrapersonal growth through the expression of virtue, meaning, resilience and well-being in relationships can result in eudaimonic happiness (Wong, 2011). The concept of eudaimonia emerged from Aristotelian philosophy and in modern times has been translated to mean happiness and a flourishing life (Kristjansson, 2010). Aristotle defined human happiness as being centered on what it means to live a good life, a life representing human excellence (Ryan, Huta & Deci, 2006).

Many studies have demonstrated eudaimonic happiness has a strong correlation with relatedness and a personal concern for others (Haybron, 2000). In fact, the development of strong interpersonal bonds of relatedness with others is one way in which an individual can find eudaimonic happiness (Ryan, Huta & Deci, 2008).

A study by Braithwaite, Selby and Fincham (2011) found relatedness can be espoused in choosing to forgive others. The study hypothesised the tendency to forgive one’s intimate partner can influence relationship satisfaction through increased relationship effort and decreased negative conflict. Participants in the study completed an online survey designed to measure tendency to forgive, communication patterns, conflict tactics and behavioural self-regulation.

Findings showed a tendency to forgive one’s partner leads to a motivational shift towards the service of long-term relational improvement. This suggests learning to forgive others not only moves an individual towards happiness in relationships, but towards eudaimonic happiness in life (Paleari, Regalia & Fincham, 2009). These studies demonstrate a key component to the development of eudaimonic happiness is through fostering quality social relationships.

The psychopathology of fearful relatedness[edit]

Depression may become worse without social support
Happy indeed would be the condition of youth if they had one corrupter only, and all the rest of the world were their improvers
- Socrates

A large body of literature supports the notion that poor relationship functioning is correlated with depression and anxiety (Rowe, Doss, Hsueh & Libet, 2011; Whisman, Uebelacker & Weinstock, 2004). A study by Yeater, Austin, Green and Smith (2010) found mental health outcomes among survivors of complex trauma related to intimate partner violence were poor. Of the 23 participants, 56 per cent used alcohol as a coping mechanism and all participants received a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most of the participants in the study were Native American, indicating cultural factors may confound the results. Notwithstanding cultural influences, Yeater et al., (2010) provides evidence that the quality of a relationship can strongly impact mental health and consequently the ability to feel happiness.

A survey study by Williams, Connolly, Pepler, Craig and Laporte (2008) examined physical dating aggression in adolescent relationships. Of the 621 participants, a significant result indicated nearly 15 per cent of participants reported recurrent dating across two or more aggressive relationships. A limitation of the study is that the (aggressive) partners were not administered the survey, indicating the self-report of the victim may not in all cases be an accurate reflection of the relationship.

Whilst recurrent adolescent dating patterns are not widely reviewed in the literature (O’Leary & Slep, 2003), the participants in the Williams et al., (2008) study who had multiple aggressive partners do not appear to make choices towards personal growth and well-being. This suggests eudaimonic happiness is not generated simply by the absence of psychopathology. Rather, eudaimonic happiness is shaped by the choices we make in our social relationships. This suggests the quality of our social relationships may be shaped by our ability to reflect and act upon Aristotle’s all-encompassing question; who ought I to be? (Ryan et al., 2008).

Summary[edit]

Take-away points to fill a thirsty soul with happiness

Take-Away Points for Personal Reflection

  • How can you be more agreeable with others?
  • Are you open to new experiences in your relationships?
  • Do you need to learn to trust others more?
  • How can you improve how you relate to others?
  • How much quality time do you spend with loved ones?
  • Is there someone you need to forgive?
  • How can you show more kindness to your loved ones?
  • Do you communicate authentically with others?
  • What kind of person do you want to be in your relationships?

In summary, after reading this chapter it is hoped you see the vital link between the quality of your social relationships, and your own level of happiness. So what tips can you take away to help generate more happiness? Reflect on the personality traits that breed happiness - could you be more agreeable with others; how open are you to new experiences in your relationships?

Think about the course of your life to date, and ask yourself whether you’ve got some unmet challenges in terms of psychosocial development; do you need to learn to trust others more, and have you developed the interpersonal skills required to attain intimacy with another person? Reflect on the quality of your social relationships – do they have a sense of meaning for you, and do you offer the best of yourself in your social interactions?

The pathway to eudaimonia is not just the absence of psychopathology. Rather, relating and growing with others opens the door to a life of meaning and a sense of our own purpose. What can you start doing today to improve the way you relate to others? Learn to forgive, spend quality time with your friends, be kind to your partner and learn how to communicate with others more authentically. If you follow these tips as a starting point for personal reflection, eudaimonia may surely be the end result.

Quiz[edit]

1

What is the fifth stage of Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development?

Identity v role confusion
Autonomy v shame
Integrity v despair
Trust v mistrust

2

Which prominent psychologists were the pioneers of positive psychology?

Csikszentmihalyi & Seligman
Seligman & Bandura
Csikszentmihalyi & Skinner
Freud & Csikszentmihalyi

3

From which philosopher did the concept of eudaimonia emerge from?

Aristotle
Epicurus
Socrates
Plato


Key terms[edit]

Eudaimonic happiness. The position that happiness (or eudemonia) is the ultimate ground of morality, so that what is good is what brings happiness. Eudaimonic happiness is considered as a criterion for what is moral and as a motivation for human action (APA, 2007).

Happiness. An emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction and well-being (APA, 2007).

Positive psychology. A field of psychological theory and research that focuses on the psychological states (i.e. contentment, joy) individual traits or character strengths (e.g. intimacy, wisdom) that make life most worth living (APA, 2007).

Psychopathology. The scientific study of mental disorders, including theory, research, diagnosis and treatment (APA, 2007).

Psychosocial development. According to Erik Erikson’s theory, personality development as a process influenced by social and cultural factors throughout the lifespan. The development of normal social behaviour (APA, 2007).

Relatedness. The reciprocal relationship of empathy, trust and oneness between two or more people (APA, 2007).

Social Relationships. The sum of the social interactions between individuals over a period of time. A social relationship is the emergent quality from repeated interactions with another person (APA, 2007).

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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External links[edit]