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Why Positive Relationships Are Needed for Emotional Health

New research finds what fuels wellbeing and growth throughout life.

It’s always good to see research that reveals how and why positive human connection in essential for emotional-physical health, wellbeing, and growth — especially when you experience adverse circumstances. A new study, reported in Personality and Social Psychology Review adds to that knowledge.

The researchers, Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University and Nancy Collins of University of California at Santa Barbara, looked at the ways in which relationships can promote or hinder “thriving” in life. That is, they were interested not only in “…what helps people cope with stress or adversity, but also in their efforts to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents, and find purpose and meaning in life,” said Feeney.

The researchers focused on five aspects of thriving:

  • 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).

They found that positive relationships fuel thriving in two ways:

One is enabling the person to embrace and pursue opportunities that enhance positive well-being, broaden and build resources and foster a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Here, the “support provider” serves as an active catalyst for thriving. This form of support emphasizes that the promotion of thriving through life opportunities is its core purpose.

The other related to situations of adversity. Here, positive support not only helps buffer 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…emphasize that the promotion of thriving through adversity is the core purpose of this support function.”

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. (It) 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.

The researchers caution that 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.

The researchers pointed out that 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.

Feeney and Collins also 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. They also describe areas for further research related to the link between positive relationships, emotional growth and overall health.

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2014 Douglas LaBier

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