Happy relationships are key to a healthy life. It’s from my own experiences with unsuccessful relationships and striving to improve my connections that I was able to heal and find the most loving relationship of my life. Now, I encourage my patients to do the same, so that they can support their health and wellbeing from all angles.
We know now, that those with strong social connections benefit mentally, emotionally, and physically—with decreased all-cause mortality compared to those who are socially isolated. And while happy relationships benefit us in many ways, troubled relationships might create stress and anxiety, which can manifest in a variety of unseemingly connected ways, such as headaches, sleep issues, upset digestion, and more.
Robert Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, directed the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked the same men over an impressive 75 year period. The biggest take home from this project? Quality relationships keep us happier and healthier. A high level of satisfaction in relationships at age 50 was the biggest indicator of good health at age 80. And good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. Those in their 80’s who felt they could really count on their partner had sharper memories for a longer amount of time.
While the relationship we have with our romantic partner often takes center stage, those with our family members and friends are just as important and integral to living well. The way we interact with our children, parents, siblings, co-workers, and friends is a deep reflection of our inner wellbeing and vice versa.
So, you can see that keeping your relationships strong keeps you strong. But how can we nurture this area of our lives? What can we do to show up and be more present with the people we care about? Or foster new relationships with the kinds of people we’d like to have in our lives?
Once you acknowledge the importance of relationships in your life and make the commitment to focus your positive energy on them, there are lots of ways to tune in to the people in your life and increase the quality of your connections:
- Explore your own feelings first. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson has developed a helpful practice for diving into what it feels like to be cared about: Think of situations where you’ve felt included; embody the feeling of being seen and understood by someone else; think of how it feels to be respected and appreciated; open into the feeling of fondness and affection being directed at you; and lastly, think of what it feels like to be loved and the people throughout your life that you’ve experienced a loving relationship with. How do you feel after exploring these thoughts? How do you want to make others feel? This mindful practice is a wonderful way to begin investigating the quality of relationships you have and cultivate positive ones in the future.
- Identify positive and negative relationships. Healthy relationships can be identified by many variables like trust, honesty, mutual respect, support, maintaining separate identities, and embracing a sense of playfulness and fondness. Relationships with a negative effect, on the other hand, involve obvious incidences like physical abuse or feeling pressured to change for the other person, as well as less clear signs like constant anxiety about the other person and fear of upsetting them, manipulation or control issues, lack of respect, lack of privacy or being denied alone time, and not making an effort to spend time together. Sometimes we can work through these negative aspects when both parts of the relationship are willing and eager for it to heal. Other times, we realize we’re better off completely ridding ourselves of a toxic relationship and we are able to move on knowing we did what was right for our own personal happiness. Working with a coach or talking to a close friend is one way to identify these aspects of your relationships to come up with actions that support your needs.
- Realize that all humans have an innate desire to be close to others. Clinical psychologist Elisha Goldstein recommends going through your day with the mantra, “Just like me,” as a way to understand that those who seem quite different from you actually aren’t—they’re just hoping to belong and feel cared for and understood, like the rest of us. Creating a warm environment for yourself to be understanding of others will break down barriers and open the doorway to better communication, equality, and support. The more you approach others with this attitude the more you’ll receive it back.
Relationships are beautiful and messy, complicated but also sometimes so sweetly simple. No two people are alike, which means no two relationships will be either. Working on your relationships allows you to grow while also extending that opportunity to someone else, plus it’s a vital part of health and longevity. Give these practices a try and notice how your relationships begin to shift in a more positive direction.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD