When doctors assess a patient’s health, they often measure things like blood pressure, cholesterol and physical activity. A new study suggests that social relationships, in particular positive relationships, are also critical (Social Psychological and Personality Science, March 27, 2023).
How Scientists Studied Positive Relationships:
Researchers in New Zealand wondered how both positive and negative social relationships affect people’s health status. They were also curious about variability in close relationships. Previous studies have focused on stress generated by negative relationships and conflict or on the benefits of social support. How do these interrelate over time to shape health?
Links Between Relationships, Psychology and Physiology:
To answer their questions, they recruited 4,005 volunteers from English-speaking countries around the world. Then the researchers tracked them daily over three weeks. Optic sensors in popular smartphones measured heart rate and blood pressure at intervals and recorded them in an app. In addition to monitoring things like heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels, the subjects in the study provided details about both positive and negative interactions with the people closest to them. They also recorded their answers to questions about coping and perceived stress levels.
Individuals who reported positive relationships instead of negative interactions had better blood pressure control, lower stress levels and improved overall physiological functioning. In addition, they were less likely to report emotional ups and downs or uncertainty within their primary relationships. With an increase in variability of the emotional quality of their relationships, their systolic blood pressure tended to rise.
Conversely, people who reported more negative relationships seemed to cope better if their interactions were less predictable. In other words, for them variability in the emotional tone of relationships was linked to lower stress, better coping, and even less blood pressure reactivity.
As a result, the investigators suggest that human interactions may have an underappreciated impact on physical well-being.
They go even further, concluding
“The quality of our relationships can determine who lives and dies; this research points to some pathways through which relationships may contribute to or undermine physical health.”
Over the years, we have interviewed several experts who have studied the effects of positive relationships on our health. You may wish to listen to Dr. Steve Trzeciak in Show 1323: Practicing Compassion as a Wonder Drug. Another interview of interest is with Dr. Don Azevedo, Show 1103: What Is the Science of Lasting Relationships? Finally, Dr. Peter Pearson discusses post-pandemic relationships in Show 1258.