Why social relationships are important

The article How to Find a Career with a Bright Outlook discusses the fact that income isn't the key factor in career happiness.  What about life happiness?  What's more important, health, money, or relationships?  Let's see what the evidence shows.This article is focused on the evidence, while another article I wrote takes a more philosophical approach to the same subject.

Let's start with the big picture

Wouldn't it be interesting to follow a group of men all their lives and interview them every two years to determine how their choices affect them? That was the objective of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, also known as the Grant-Glueck study, the longest-running longitudinal study of adult life ever conducted. Two hundred sixty-eight Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944 and 456 men who grew up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Boston were selected for the study. Researchers gathered data about their physical and mental health, occupational satisfaction, retirement experience, and marital quality.

Of those who rated themselves the happiest, which factor(s) contributed the most?  The unequivocal answer is, "warm relationships."  Incredibly, this ultimately contributed not only to the happiness but also to the income of these fortunate people.  The 58 men who scored the highest on measurements of “warm relationships” earned an average of $141,000 a year more at their peak salaries (usually between ages 55 and 60) than the 31 men who scored lowest.  In contrast, IQ had almost no relationship with maximum income.

According to Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development:

It's not just the number of friends you have, and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship. It's the quality of your close relationships that matters. ... The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

George E. Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, put it even more plainly: "Happiness is love. Full stop."

This was the case among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants. The men's relationships at age 47 were better predictors of late-life adjustment than any other variable, except adaptations.These adaptations will be covered in a future article.

Absolutely necessary for maximum happiness

The first known study of very happy people was conducted by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman.  They wanted to see, not just what makes people happy, but what people require to be very happy.  They surveyed 222 undergraduate students and compared the upper 10% of consistently very happy people with average and very unhappy people.Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very Happy People. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81–84. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00415  Here's what they concluded:

The very happy people were highly social, and had stronger romantic and other social relationships than less happy groups. ... We do not know if rich social lives caused happiness, or if happiness caused rich social lives, or if both were caused by some third variable. It is interesting, however, that social relationships form a necessary but not sufficient condition for high happiness—that is, they do not guarantee high happiness, but it does not appear to occur without them.

What the World Happiness Report said

The very first World Happiness Report (PDF here), touched on this subject.  The report, published in 2012, was commissioned for the United Nations Conference on Happiness.  It acknowledged the need for nations to provide their citizens with a minimum of economic prosperity.  But beyond this, focusing on economic prosperity brings diminishing returns:

Except in the very poorest countries happiness varies more with the quality of human relationships than with income. ... The economy exists to serve the people, not vice versa. Incremental gains in income in a rich country may be much less beneficial to the population than steps to ensure the vibrancy of local communities or better mental health.

The report connects life satisfaction with an interesting ingredient: trust.  Life satisfaction is up in many countries in recent years, but in others, such as the U.S. and U.K., it has not increased despite their prosperity.  The report cites income inequality and a decline in the quality of human relationships as contributing factors.  According to the report, this decline can be measured by:

  • Increased solitude
  • Communication difficulties
  • Fear
  • Distrust
  • Family infidelity
  • Reduced social engagement

The reduced role of religion in the lives of many has left a vacuum:

Of all types of social life, close personal relationships with loved adults explain the greatest variation in happiness. Traditionally, external support for family life was provided largely through faith communities. But in secular societies all social organizations and institutions, including those managed by the state, have important roles to play.

Materialism hurts happiness

I also examined a study that collected data from surveys taken in South Korea.Lee, M.-A., & Kawachi, I. (2019). The keys to happiness: Associations between personal values regarding core life domains and happiness in South Korea. PLOS ONE, 14(1), e0209821. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209821   This country is of interest because it is a non-Western society but it has strong religious values.  The authors of the study referenced the Schwartz theory of human values.  They also referred to another longitudinal study that demonstrates "prioritizing family over work and leisure results in higher life satisfaction."Masuda, A. D., & Sortheix, F. M. (2011). Work-Family Values, Priority Goals and Life Satisfaction: A Seven Year Follow-up of MBA Students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(6), 1131–1144. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-011-9310-6

The authors of this study also refer to two recent studies that demonstrate that people who value time more than money are happier.Hershfield, H. E., Mogilner, C., & Barnea, U. (2016). People Who Choose Time Over Money Are Happier. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(7), 697–706. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550616649239 and Whillans, A. V., & Dunn, E. W. (2018). Valuing time over money is associated with greater social connection. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(8), 2549–2565. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407518791322

The paper concludes:

Those prioritizing social relationships, including family, friends, and neighbors," were among the happiest, while "those who prioritized extrinsic achievements (money, power, educational attainment, work, and leisure) as well as health were least likely to be happy.

They offer this explanation: Materialistic people are more likely to compare themselves with others. A higher level of social comparison can lead to heightened frustration and dissatisfaction with individual achievements. Extrinsic goals, such as power, money, and status, carry the risk of making it harder for people to achieve and be satisfied with their goals.

The study also found that those who prioritize religion or spirituality were the happiest of all. However, this was not an absolute conclusion.

All theories of human values include social relationships

Speaking of values, Anastasia Aldelina Lijadi conducted a survey of leading theories of human values to determine the answer to the question, "What are universally accepted human values that define ‘a good life’?"This project was connected with the development of the Years of Good Life (YoGL) indicator of human well-being and development.  She and her team concluded:

Looking at the literature review of the human values theories covering a time frame of fifty years, we notice that the value of survival or being alive is claimed to be the primary value in several theories; and the values of fulfillment of basic needs, positive social relationships, and subjective well-being are included in all reviewed theories.

Can we measure the effects of social relationships on happiness?

I found an often-cited statistic that comes from a chapter in the book Mental Health in Black America.Murray, C. B., & Peacock, M. J. (1996). A model-free approach to the study of subjective wellbeing. In H. W. Neighbors & J. S. Jackson (Eds.), Mental Health in Black America, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 14-26.  Researchers Carolyn Murray and Jean Peacock identified the following as the core factors in a happy life:

  • Degree of family closeness
  • Amount of family contact
  • Number of friends they could call on
  • Relationships with co-workers and neighbors

A book that cited this chapter is frequently quoted as saying: "Together these features explain about 70 percent of personal happiness."The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, by David Niven  I don't believe this is an actual quote from Mental Health in Black America, however.  At the time of this writing, I do not have access to the book so I cannot confirm the accuracy of this number, but it sounds reasonable.

Other benefits

While looking for evidence of the benefits of strong social relationships, I came across a gold mine in the form of a paper written by Shelley E. Taylor of the UCLA Dept. of Psychology.Taylor, S. E. (2011). Social Support: A Review. In Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195342819.013.0009   Shelley defines "social support" as:

The perception or experience that one is loved and cared for by others, esteemed and valued, and part of a social network of mutual assistance and obligations. ... Social support may come from a partner, relatives, friends, coworkers, social and community ties, and even a devoted pet.

This paper cites numerous studies to back up all of the following claims about social support.  According to the cited research, social support:

  • Reduces psychological distress such as depression or anxiety during times of stress.
  • Helps the individual adapt to chronically stressful conditions, including coronary artery disease, diabetes, HIV, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, childhood leukemia, and stroke.
  • Protects older adults from cognitive decline, and those recently widowed from heart disease.
  • Helps reduce psychological distress in response to traumatic events, such as 9/11.
  • Contributes to physical health and longevity.
  • Predicted an average increase in longevity of 2.8 years for women and 2.3 years for men, and these differences remained after controlling for socioeconomic status, health status at the beginning of the study, and health habits.
  • Has an effect size similar to smoking, blood pressure, lipids, obesity, and physical activity, and is, in some cases, a stronger predictor of longevity and health than well-established risk factors.
  • Helps people avoid becoming ill altogether. 
  • Reduces the time it takes to recover from illness.
  • Leads to fewer complications during pregnancy and childbirth, less susceptibility to herpes attacks among infected individuals, lower rates of myocardial infarction among individuals with diagnosed disease, a reduced likelihood of mortality from myocardial infarction, faster recovery from coronary artery disease surgery, better diabetes control, better compliance and longer survival in patients with end-stage renal disease, and less pain among arthritis patients.
  • Has consistently been associated with a lower risk of early death.

The most helpful social relationships

The benefits of having strong social connections cannot be overstated, but relationships are not without their downsides.  We cherish our close relationships with family and romantic partners, but there is great value in having many friends and relatives who are not so close to us.  Shelley makes the following keen observation:

People who belong to dense social networks of friends or family who are highly interactive may find themselves overwhelmed by the advice and interference that is available to them in times of stress. As comedian George Burns noted, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

In addition, Shelley points out that it is increasingly evident that much of the benefit of social support is due to the knowledge that it is available, even when it isn't used.

A 2019 study on social behavior and happiness agrees with this assessment, saying:

Our results show that spending time with one’s family is related to momentary happiness, but more so for extended family members (e.g., a cousin) than direct ones such as siblings, romantic partners, and children.Quoidbach, J., Taquet, M., Desseilles, M., de Montjoye, Y.-A., & Gross, J. J. (2019). Happiness and Social Behavior. Psychological Science, 30(8), 1111–1122. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619849666 

A rebuttal

In the spirit of critical thinking, I try to find the other side of the story whenever possible.  Although it isn't easy to find arguments to the contrary, I did find one. Richard Lucas tends to advocate a measured approach.  While acknowledging that "social relationships influence well-being," he and his colleagues assert that "much of the existing evidence does not show what it has been claimed to show."Lucas, R. E., Dyrenforth, P. S., & Diener, E. (2008). Four myths about subjective well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(5), 2001–2015. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00140.x 

The paper says:

The size of these effects is not commensurate with claims that social relationships are a particularly strong predictor of well-being. Correlations between the number of friends, frequency of contact, marital status, and actual social activity are generally small, between 0.10 and 0.20. In fact, many of these effect sizes are smaller than those for other variables often interpreted as unimportant (e.g., income).

Apparently, they object to the conclusions of the studies I have referenced in this article because they use self-reporting to determine well-being.  Social science is full of complexities that don't lend themselves to easy answers.

The bottom line

Social relationships, specifically relationships with individuals we may not see often, but whom we trust to support us, are directly related to happiness.  Future articles will discuss how we can take action to build and strengthen this support network.