The Importance of Interpersonal Relationships to Happiness
How Do Interpersonal Relationships Relate to Happiness?
Our previous article maintained that we should not depend on others for happiness. Be that as it may, having strong, healthy relationships is crucial for our well-being. If we want to look for an example of the influence social relationships have on our well-being, we need look no further than studies on extraversion and happiness. Many studies have found extraverted individuals to be happier on average than introverted individuals (Argyle & Lu, 1990; Oerlemans & Bakker, 2014; Pavot et al., 1990). However, a study by Hotard and colleagues (1989) provides a more nuanced understanding of this relationship—it concluded that extraversion is linked to a higher level of overall happiness only for individuals who are high in neuroticism or have poor social relationships (Hotard et al., 1989). To put it more briefly, introverted individuals with strong social relationships reported a relatively high subjective well-being, much like extraverted individuals (Hotard et al., 1989). This stresses on the importance of social relationships for both introverts and extraverts.
Indeed, in a study by Caunt and colleagues (2003) which required participants to name “ingredients” in the “recipe for happiness”, social relationships were most frequently mentioned. People who report a higher subjective well-being often report having stronger relationships (Diener and Seligman, 2002). As such, it might not be entirely surprising that many people associate their interpersonal relationships with happiness. Nonetheless, we may wonder: What it is that makes interpersonal relationships so important?
Interpersonal Relationships Provide Us with Social Support
One reason why the strength of interpersonal relationships often correlate with happiness levels is the significance of social support. A study conducted among 267 adults showed that both social support and emotional intelligence predicted subjective well-being (Gallagher & Vella-Brodrick, 2008). Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of one’s emotions and those of others, as well as to manage and effectively convey one’s own emotions. Research on emotional intelligence suggests that social support also helps to explain this relationship between emotional intelligence and well-being—that is, high emotional intelligence is positively associated with social support, which is in turn positively associated with measures of subjective happiness and life satisfaction, and negatively associated with distress (Kong et al., 2019; Ye et al., 2018; Zeidner & Matthews, 2016). Social support can help to buffer the impact of negative life events.
From the literature, it certainly seems that having strong social ties can make us happier. Apart from the benefits of receiving support, giving others support can be rewarding for us as well. An experimental study demonstrated that giving support to a loved one was associated with increased activity in ventral striatum and septal area—neural regions associated with pleasure and reward (Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2012). Hence, a good balance of providing and receiving social support is likely to be valuable to our well-being.
Being Around Others Can Make Us Happy
Social relationships are not only important for support and coping—people also report feeling happier when with others. Spending time around others has been associated with more positive emotions (Emmons & Diener, 1986, as cited in Pavot et al., 1990). The results of a study comparing personal values among individualistic and collectivistic cultures also highlight how interpersonal relationships can contribute to our well-being: Individualistic personal values were associated with decreased well-being in East Asian cultures, which tend to be collectivistic, but not European American cultures, which tend toward individualism (Ogihara & Uchida, 2014). The researchers suggested that this could be because individuals in European American cultures may be better able to overcome the impact of the negative aspects of individualistic systems by actively fostering interpersonal relationships, while people in East Asian cultures may not be equipped with these strategies (Ogihara & Uchida, 2014). Evidently, interpersonal relationships are important in both individualistic and collectivistic societies, for even if one values individualism, the lack of strong relationships can have a negative impact on well-being.
Moreover, capitalization—the process of sharing about positive events with close others—has been linked to lower distress levels and increased intimacy in relationships (Gable & Reis, 2010). Firstly, sharing these events with others causes us to value them more, particularly when others react with enthusiasm (Reis et al., 2010). Secondly, such favourable responses promote the development of a trusting relationship (Reis et al., 2010). Happiness shared is happiness multiplied!
The Role of Digital Communication
Last year, many governments recommended that people should stay as home as much as possible to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (Matias et al., 2020). While social isolation is effective in slowing down the spread of the virus, it decreases the frequency of social interactions—connections which would typically help us to cope with negative emotions and stress (Williams et al., 2018). Since Singapore moved into Phase Two on 19 June 2020, more activities have been allowed to resume; however, to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading the virus, many may still be socializing less than they used to. In times like these, digital communication plays a crucial role in keeping us connected to one another.
Even in normal times, it may be challenging to stay connected with others amid a busy schedule. Fortunately, digital communication makes this much quicker and easier. Still, the relationship between Internet use and happiness is not a simple one, for technology has the potential to both positively and negatively impact our well-being. Kraut and colleagues (1998) found that more frequent users of the Internet conversed less with friends and family and tended to have higher levels of loneliness. On the other hand, it was found that when users perceived social media platforms as allowing them to connect with others, they were more likely to be happier and less lonely (Pittman, 2018). Furthermore, Kim and Lee (2011) found that authentic self-representation on Facebook predicted happiness, provided strong perceived social support.
It’s important to bear in mind that technology can have a negative impact on us, but on the bright side, social media and messaging platforms can fend off loneliness by keeping us connected to others. Sharing about positive events can increase our happiness and strengthen relationships. Meanwhile, when we are facing negative events and emotions, social support can make us more resilient. With this in mind, maintaining interpersonal relationships is definitely worth the effort.
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