Mark Holder, Ph.D.

The Happiness Doctor

5 Simple Steps to Better Relationships

Happier relationships with friends, family and romantic partners

Posted Feb 05, 2017

One of the clearest findings from 20 years of research in positive psychology is that personal relationships are critical to our happiness. It is almost impossible to find happy people who don’t have meaningful relationships.

Friends make really important contributions to our happiness. For children, even imaginary friends can promote their happiness.  For college students, friends make an important contribution to happiness if they are single.  However, if a student is in a romantic relationship, then that becomes the most important contributor and friends barely matter to their happiness. 

Given how critical our personal relationships are to our happiness, how we can improve the quality of all our relationships?  Based on the research evidence, I have summarized five practices you can use right now to nurture your relationships:

1) Listen: Research suggests that if we are in a relationship for more than a few months, we may have almost stopped asking the other person meaningful questions.And when we do ask questions, we don’t really listen to the answers – we interrupt.A simple phrase that researchers used to increase their bond with chronically-ill patients was “tell me more.”When we lean forward, make eye contact and say “Tell me more,” we are sending a message that the other person’s story matters to us.We are not waiting to go on to our own story.By using this phrase, we validate the importance of our partner’s, child’s, co-worker’s or friend’s narrative, increasing the relationship bond with him or her.

2) Compliment: Complimenting someone -- especially for his or her judgment, effort or effectiveness -- can increase the closeness of your relationship with that person.

2) Notice: The bond between college football season-ticket holders and their teams was assessed. Then these fans were instructed to notice something different about their team (such as different uniforms, plays, formations and cheers) during each game for six weeks.When the bond was reassessed, it was stronger.Noticing something different about your spouse, children or friends, and telling them what you noticed, can enhance your relationship bond.

4) Celebrate: Social comparisons can be toxic to our happiness. To steer clear of this, celebrate the successes of others when they receive a raise, promotion, award or the like. It can be as simple as sending a congratulatory email.

5) Unplug: We spend an average of over 53 hours each week plugged in to some sort of device.In one study, people sat at a table and talked.If there was a phone on the table, compared with a notebook, people rated their satisfaction with the quality of their conversation as poorer – even when the phone was turned off!Therefore, don’t just turn off your phone; put it out of sight and focus on what really matters – the person with whom you are talking.

Debra Plueckhahn - "Connected by friends" - Wikimedia Commons
Source: Debra Plueckhahn - "Connected by friends" - Wikimedia Commons

There is an astute Scottish saying that “we can count our true friends, in our entire lifetime, on the fingers of but one hand.”  The people in our lives are precious.  Using these five practices can allow you to nurture the quality of your relationships.

You can listen to my TEDx talk on nurturing personal relationships:

About the Author

Mark Holder, Ph.D., leads a research team at the University of British Columbia dedicated to understanding and enhancing happiness.

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