How to Get the Relationships That Matter for Personal Growth
New research shows the value of having long-term bonds with loved ones.
Posted Aug 17, 2019
Few would argue that being close to the people you care about can help promote your feelings of well-being and happiness. Indeed, there is a large body of research showing the value of social support in maintaining mental health.
For many people, the question perhaps is not whether good relationships matter, but how to get and keep those relationships. You may long for closeness to another person or a larger support group, but not be able to establish these strong bonds. Studies on personal growth through relationships take a slightly different approach, examining not how to form those relationships, but on what benefits those relationships have to overall well-being. An understanding of these studies can help you, though, gain insight into how you can chart a new path for yourself in a way that allows those close relationships to flourish
New research by Masashiro Toyama of North Dakota State University and colleagues (2019) approached this question by taking advantage of a large data set involving the study of individuals from mid- to later life. Known as the Midlife in the United States study, or “MIDUS,” the investigators who began this study in the mid-90s used national probability sampling to obtain personality and behavioral data on 7,108 adults ranging from 20 to 75 years of age. The original participants were retested twice, once in 2005-06 (on 4,963 participants) and again in 2013-14 (3,294 participants). The loss of participants over time is one of the liabilities of longitudinal studies, that must be traded against the value of continuous follow-ups over time. Luckily, by using new and sophisticated statistical models, the authors were able to track patterns of change for their participants that took those missing data into account.
The goal of the Toyama et al. study was to investigate how the psychosocial factors associated with work, positive interpersonal relationships, and spirituality would affect patterns of personal growth over time for men and women. An additional predictive factor used in this study was generativity, or the sense of having connection and concern over those younger than oneself. If you are high in generativity, you hope for the best not only for your own children, but for the generations of younger people who will fill your shoes when you are gone. People high in generativity don’t scoff at current generations of young adults, such as the “Millennials,” but instead have high hopes for their ability to improve themselves and the world. The generative also make themselves available as resources for help and support to those young people.
The authors define personal growth in the sense of “eudaimonia,” a term harking back to Aristotle that refers to the tendency to strive to be the best that you, uniquely, can be. Summarizing previous research, the North Dakota research team notes that “Personal growth has been found to be associated with a variety of well-being outcomes, such as resilience or ability to cope with difficult times, life satisfaction, self-actualization (Maslow’s term for the ultimate form of motivation), and… autonomy, environmental mastery, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance” (p. 2). People high in personal growth can also rise above life’s challenges, experiencing what’s known as “post-traumatic growth.” They not only bounce back from stress or threat, but actually reach new and improved levels of well-being. Perhaps someone you know lost a dear friend to a terminal illness. After mourning that friend, this individual was able to become more appreciative of what life has to offer, changed priorities, and sought to deepen other personal relationships.
The question of who is more likely to achieve personal growth, younger or older adults, prompted the research team to examine different patterns of change over the 20-year period of the study. Noting that “personal growth seems to remain important through later life… the factors leading to personal growth may differ between different age groups or change with age” (p. 3). To test this possibility, the authors analyzed data from several key questionnaires that they administered at each time of testing. They measured personal growth with the following 3-item scale: “For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, changing, and growth”; “I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how I think about myself and the world”; and “I gave up trying to make big improvements or change my life a long time ago” (p. 4). Unfortunately, this scale, taken from the Ryff measure of well-being, is too short to have ideal reliability but it was the scale that they had available within MIDUS so the authors had no choice but to use it. You might ask yourself how much you agree with each item (the third item would be reverse-coded).
The other psychosocial factors measured in the MIDUS included work status (working or not), and generativity (e.g. “Many people come to you for advice”). The authors measured spirituality with two items asking participants to rate how important spirituality is in their life, and how spiritual they see themselves.
Using 3 other items from Ryff’s well-being scale, the authors measured personal relations with these self-ratings: “Maintaining close relationships has been difficult and frustrating for me”; “People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others”; and “I have not experienced many warm and trusting relationships with others.” Like the personal growth scale, the positive relationships measure had lower than ideal statistical reliability, again because of its brevity. As you might guess, the first and third items reflected low positive relations.
If you’ve been keeping track, you might have a sense of where you would stand on these brief, but telling, scales. You might also think about how you would rate yourself on these items now versus the way you would have rated yourself 10 years ago or how you might rate yourself 10 years into the future. What role do you think the quality of your own personal relationships might play in affecting your well-being? Do you see yourself as a generative person, and is spirituality high on your list of priorities?
Looking just at personal growth scores over the 20 years of the study, the authors examined the patterns of change separately for those who were 35 years old in the mid-90s from those who were 55 at the study’s onset. The patterns of personal growth were also charted separately for those high and low in personal relations. Everyone high in personal relations was also higher in personal growth throughout the 20-year period, but there was a dip for all participants in 2004-06, perhaps related to changes in the overall social and historical context (this was a very recent post-9/11 world).
By the time of the last testing, the group showing the highest tendency to rebound was the 55-year-olds who had scored high in positive relations. Thus, all other things being equal, positive relations became more of a contributor to personal growth for the older individuals in the study than for their younger counterparts. As the authors concluded, “These results bolster the research on the longitudinal protective role of interpersonal relationships for personal growth among aging adults” (p. 16).
The Toyama et al. results should provide you with some hope if your personal relationships are not at the level you would prefer. The findings suggest that over time, people can improve their personal relationships and, accordingly, their sense of overall personal growth. Additionally, the findings showed that generativity also played a role in predicting patterns of personal growth; in the words of the authors: “Serving others may lead to enhancing personal growth for adults of any age” (p. 17). The good news here is that generativity is a psychosocial quality that you can gain if you start to develop greater faith in the future generations and also make yourself available to listen to the young people in your life.
To sum up, the MIDUS study results show that personal relationships do make a difference, and perhaps more so as you get older. Notably, the questions in this study asking about personal relations didn’t inquire as to how many you happen to have in your life, but instead focused on quality. Even if you aren’t that close to a large number of people, by combining generativity (openness to helping others) and the willingness to share your time with the people you do have in your support network, you can achieve the personal growth that will promote your long-term fulfillment.
Toyama, M., Fuller, H. R., & Hektner, J. M. (2019). Psychosocial factors promoting personal growth throughout adulthood. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. doi: 10.1007/s10902-019-00155-1