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R is for Relationships

Today we are introducing the third in a five part series of blog posts from Anita Marsden – Clinical Psychologist, lover of life and member of Sunday Assembly Brighton’s organising committee.

Just imagine yourself for a moment. You are home alone, it’s 4am in the morning and something is wrong. You are seriously upset and no matter what you do you can’t calm yourself down. Do you have at least one person you would feel comfortable phoning to talk with at that time in the morning? If you answered yes to that question you are likely to live longer than someone who answered no. A Harvard Psychiatrist, George Vaillant discovered this during a 70 year longitudinal study of Harvard College Graduates (The Grant Study). Vaillant put forward the argument that the capacity to be loved is one of the most important characteristics to our health and wellbeing. More recently, Isaaccowitz, Vaillant & Seligman (2003) found that the capacity to love and be loved is the single strength (remember character strengths we were talking about in E for Engagement) most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty.

I love that phrase; “to love and be loved” and have heard it many times in both religious and secular settings. Most recently at a friend’s baby naming ceremony; “May he know what it is to love and be loved”. And it rings so true for me, with or without the scientific backing, being able to do things for others, to show my love brings me such joy, and being able to accept another’s love, possibly brings me even more joy as I see how it makes them happy too.

And actually, of all the aspects of this well-being theory, PERMA, it is really the R that holds it all together. When was the last time you felt positive emotions like joy or laughter? When was the last time you sensed meaning or purpose? The last time you felt you achieved something? I’m guessing most often with other people, or to do with other people in some way. I would go as far as saying, if there is one part of this well-being theory you should take to heart, the real punchline, it is this: that social relationships are good for you, full stop.

But don’t just take my word for it.

The science is serious when it comes to this too. A huge meta-analysis (study of studies) looked at data in over 308,000 individuals and found that those with ‘adequate’ social relationships are significantly more likely to live longer than those with ‘insufficient or poor’ social relationships. (This remained consistent even across age, sex, initial health status, cause of death and other factors.) Basically, we’re more likely to die earlier if we have poor social relationships, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the possible added benefit of those with better than adequate (or super) social relationships. To put this in context, the effect of social relationships on risk of death is similar to other well known risk factors of mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceeds the risk of obesity or physical inactivity. Moving from insufficient or poor social relationships to adequate would have the same impact on your longevity as giving up smoking. It’s huge.

So, to reflect the gravity of this week, there are two tasks I challenge you to: Build the social relationships we have and make new ones.

1. Start up a conversation with someone who is relatively unknown to you but that you see regularly e.g. on a commute, in your admin office or in a coffee shop… where there is the potential that you could get to know them a little more. Simply ask them how they are and try, get their name and tell them your name. Maybe ending with “it’s great to meet you, see you again”…

2. Take on the gratitude challenge. Identify someone in your life that you are grateful for. Sit down and spend some time composing a letter to them, telling them why you are grateful for them and why you love having them in your life. Then either send the letter to them in the post (or hand deliver it), give them a call or arrange to meet them face to face and read the letter to them. Slightly cringe making? This might not be for everyone. But, hold in mind, that when a range of positive psychology exercises were tested in a randomised controlled trial, this task was shown to have the largest immediate impact on increasing happiness and decreasing depression (Seligman et al., 2005).

And so, my wish for all of you this week, is that you know what it is to love and be loved.