Melanie Greenberg Ph.D.

The Mindful Self-Express

Do Relationships Make Us Healthier and Happier?

Both quality and quantity make a difference.

Posted Dec 22, 2016

Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock
Source: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock

Satisfying relationships not only make us happy, they also influence our long-term health as much as getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and not smoking. Many research studies have shown that satisfying relationships are associated with better health, greater happiness, and even a longer life. This effect is not limited to romantic relationships; close friendships and social connections with family and members of your community can also help your health.

Does relationship quality make a difference?

While the number of social ties makes a difference, quality also counts. In one study, midlife women who were more satisfied with their marriages had a lower risk for cardiovascular disease. Conversely, toxic relationships with family and friends can stress us out and damage our health. In studies of marital conflict, hostile interactions with a spouse are associated with signs of impaired immunity and increases in stress hormones. Other studies show that midlife women in unsatisfying marriages have higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol, and higher body mass indexes than those in satisfying marriages. They also have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and anger. The researchers noted that these physical and emotional states raise the risk of heart disease—and each can be exacerbated by stress.

Do partners motivate us to live healthier?

Being in a supportive relationship can also motivate us to live healthier. Studies show social support is related to eating more vegetables, exercising, and quitting smoking. Being around healthier people can be an incentive to take better care of our own health. Or perhaps we may enjoy exercising with friends or partners. Spouses may buy and cook healthy foods for us or we may be motivated to get fitter so as to be more attractive to our partners. 

There is a difference between encouragement and being too controlling, however. One study compared partner support (aiding and reinforcing a partner’s own efforts) with partner control behaviors (inducing change in one’s partner). Results showed that supportive behaviors predicted better mental health, while control behaviors predicted worse mental health and less healthy behaviors. Trying to control others may make them angry and create resistance to change. Research shows that we are more likely to maintain healthy behaviors if we are motivated by intrinsic factors like wanting to be fitter, rather than extrinsic factors like placating a partner.

Does social support lessen your body's stress response?

Social support has also been shown to reduce the biological stress response. In studies in which people are subjected to social stress in the form of public speaking with evaluation, those who had a close friend or family member present showed less cardiovascular arousal and/or faster cardiac recovery from stress. Patting a pet can also lower your blood pressure. Social support (whether from humans or animals) may make us more resilient to stress by lessening the body's biological stress response. Findings from animal studies show that social support reduces the release of cortisol (the stress hormone) when faced with a stressor.

What about depression?

For people at risk for depression, supportive relationships can be a protective factor. In studies, better social support predicted less depression in people with cardiac disease and heart attack patients. Patients with more support are more likely to cope actively with their health issues—for example, by making lifestyle changes. Supportive relationships also help our mental health. This effect has been shown in populations including college students, unemployed spouses, and parents of medically ill children.

How do relationships impact your health?

How does social support impact our health? It seems there are biological, behavioral, and emotional pathways. Partners and friends or family can encourage us by listening, showing that they care, helping our self esteem, motivating us to be healthy, or distracting us from our stressors. On the other hand, criticism and ongoing unresolved conflict can make us feel more stressed and take energy away from managing our problems.

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and former Professor of Psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology. She is an expert on stress, the brain, and mindfulness. She provides workshops, speaking engagements, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows and as an expert in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet. Her new book, The Stress-Proof Brain is now available.

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