Why Relationships Matter (Maybe Now More Than Ever)

The quality of our relationships is the single biggest predictor of our happiness—more so than business success, physical health, wealth, status or fame. While we may be in the unique position of either spending a bit too much time with others lately, or striving to maintain connections with those we love from a safe distance, it does all of us good to focus on and prioritize our relationships to set the foundation of a happy, healthy life.

To further explore this topic, we chatted with positive psychology expert Jaime Weisberg, founder of Northbound Coaching & Consulting and facilitator of the Thrive! well-being series offered through the Syracuse University Wellness Initiative. The upcoming workshop, “Other People Matter: Strengthening the Foundation of Happiness,” will be held virtually on April 28 or April 30 at noon, via Zoom. Faculty and staff can sign up today!

The Benefits of Human Connection

“I think we all intuitively know that if we think about the happiest times in our lives, they usually include other people,” Weisberg says. “There is also a lot of science and various mechanisms that help explain why relationships are such a strong predictor of human happiness.”

She points to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies to look at adult males throughout the life span. It found that the quality of the connections subjects had with others over the course of their lives was correlated with both increased happiness and increased longevity—suggesting that relationships impact not only our emotional, but our physical health.

Emotionally, having the support of others, feeling connected and having a sense of belonging all elevate feelings of positivity and self-worth, thereby contributing to increased happiness. But, according to Weisberg, there’s also some neurobiology at play. “When we’re in connection, we release a neuropeptide called oxytocin, which stimulates the ‘calm-and-connect’ response,” she says. “This is the antithesis of the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response. There’s a neurochemical process that unfolds when we’re in relationship to others that’s very calming. It builds trust, soothes our nervous system and helps buffer the stress response.”

“The emotion of loneliness is actually felt in the same center of our brain where we feel physical pain,” Weisberg says. “So when we’re lonely, it physically hurts. It’s thought to be a protective mechanism, to keep us in connection with one another.”This is thought to be an evolutionary response: simply put, we are wired to be in connection. When we are babies, being connected to our parent or caregiver helps ensure our survival, Weisberg says. When we get older, finding a mate and procreating help ensure the further continuation of our species. In tribal settings, we commonly lived in community with one another and shared responsibilities for hunting, gathering and child-rearing. Although our society has grown increasingly isolated from one another—not to mention the current experience of forced isolation, in many cases—we are not designed to live this way. As has been widely publicized in recent years, loneliness can have devastating consequences to our health.

Focus on Good, Healthy Relationships; Romantic and Otherwise

It’s not just our romantic relationships that benefit us, either. Connecting with your children, friends, other family members, coworkers and even strangers can all invoke these feel-good chemical reactions in the body.

“Even micro-moments of connectivity that we have with other people—say a stranger on the subway—can stimulate this burst of activity, almost like taking a quick vitamin, involving something called mirror neurons in the brain,” says Weisberg. “The same parts of our brain and their brain light up at the same time, and we can share a really calming, connected moment together.”

Some of the hallmarks of healthy, productive relationships? According to Weisberg, they’re mutually supportive, in both bad times and good; there’s an ability to be authentic and vulnerable with one another; and there should be shared experiences that are not only enjoyable, but novel.

“If there are relationships in your life that are feeling very negative and toxic to you, it’s OK to step away from some of those and focus on ones that are more nourishing to you—especially right now,” she says. Because we tend to mirror or pick up the emotions of those we spend our time with, a concept known as “emotional contagion,” we should nurture relationships that are supportive, positive and celebratory and spend less time and energy on those that are dominated by negativity, gossiping or complaining.

During this period of social distancing and juggling home and work responsibilities, Weisberg emphasizes the importance of being truly present with those we care about and not multi-tasking. “It may be a little harder, especially not being in physical connection, to stay present in relationships—but presence is a big factor when it comes to trust, and trust is hugely important to quality relationships,” she says. “We need to carve that time out to be truly present, to actively listen, and to show up for people and honor that connection.”

The bottom line: our relationships are important and require the same level of prioritization and commitment as any other area of our lives. Join the next Thrive! well-being session to learn more, including tools and strategies we can use to strengthen and be more present in our relationships.