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How Positive Relationships Help You Grow and Thrive

A new study demonstrates how and why positive human connection in necessary for both emotional and physical health.
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Some of the most useful research is the kind that sounds like a "no-brainer." It confirms what should be obvious, but that's often good because what's obvious or intuitive can be overlooked or disregarded. A new study fits this category. It demonstrates how and why positive human connection in necessary for both emotional and physical health. And not just for surviving or maintaining a healthy state during adverse circumstances, but for increasing your wellbeing and continued growth, or "thriving," throughout life.

The study was conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and UC Santa Barbara, and reported in Personality and Social Psychology Review. It looked at the ways in which relationships can promote or hinder thriving in life. That is, not just with 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 Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon.

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
  • Social well-being
  • Physical well-being

A summary of the research from Carnegie Mellon reported that the researchers 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. According to the researchers, this form of support emphasizes that the promotion of thriving through life opportunities is its core purpose.

The other function relates to situations of adversity. Here, the findings indicate that 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 emphasize that certain characteristics of people who provide support enhance their capacity to provide meaningful support. Feeney explained:

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 people receiving support feel understood, validated, and cared for.

The researchers caution that people who provide support 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. Moreover, they might also be neglectful or disengaged, over-involved, controlling, or otherwise out of sync with the recipient's needs.

They also emphasize that accepting support when needed, and being willing and able to provide support in return, helps cultivate the types of mutually caring relationships that enable people to thrive. They also describe areas for further research on the links between positive relationships, emotional growth and overall health.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.