The relationships we form with other people matter a lot. Recent findings, for example, indicate that if a person is obese, the probability of dying early is 20%. If a person is an excessive drinker, the probability of dying early is 30%. If a person is a smoker, the probability of dying early is 50%. If a person is in poor social relationships, the probability of dying early is 70%. Relationships are more important in predicting longevity and long-term health than are the physiological factors that capture so much of our attention and medical research.(1)
The question is why? Why is it that interpersonal relationships matter so much in terms of health and well-being? What makes them more important than being over-weight, drinking excessively, and smoking?
This is usually a relatively easy question to answer for most people. We say that being loved, cared for, appreciated, and valued meets our basic needs, feels good, and is a means for us to evaluate themselves positively. We like being liked. This is certainly accurate, because feeling valued by others, receiving positive feedback, and being the recipient of others’ adoration is certainly satisfying. It meets our needs for belonging.
But, as it turns out, that is not the most important explanation. Another more significant factor explains why relationships matter so much in predicting long-term well-being and life expectancy. And, it’s not what you might expect.
Several studies were conducted at the University of Michigan which illustrate the reasons for what makes interpersonal relationships so important. I will discuss just three of these studies.
In one study, a colleague selected a sample of entering freshmen—17, 18, and 19-year-old students. She asked them to identify their goals for the year. Each student had many goals, but the researcher categorized the goals into two types: achievement goals and contribution goals. Achievement goals are illustrated by getting good grades, becoming popular, making the team, getting elected to a club office, and so forth. Contribution goals are illustrated by wanting to make a difference, trying to do something that added value, and so forth. Students who were dominated by achievement goals were placed into one group, and students who were dominated by contribution goals were placed into another group. Then the researcher simply followed these students for one year. She measured factors such as how well they got along with their roommates or how many were elected to a club office (social factors); how many minor physiological symptoms they experienced such as headaches, colds, cramps, or nausea they experienced (physiological factors); how many times they missed class, and what their grade point average was at the end of each semester (academic factors). On every single outcome, contribution goals were more important in predicting performance than were achievement goals. That is, it was what these students contributed more than what they tried to achieve that predicted their success in social, physiological, and academic outcomes.(2)
This finding is confirmed by another study of kidney dialysis patients. The outcome being predicted was the general health and well-being of the patients. All patients were measured on two factors—(1) the extent to which they were being loved, supported, and cared for by someone, and (2) the extent to which they were loving, supporting, and caring for someone else. As it turned out, the second factor was the strongest predictor of physiological well-being and health. Even though these people were constrained by being hooked-up to a dialysis machine, contributing to someone else’s well-being was a more significant predictor of their own health and well-being than was receiving support and concern from another person.(3)
A third study confirms this same result. Multiple sclerosis patients were placed into two groups over a two year period. Members of one group were assigned to receive a telephone call once per week having someone express love, support, and concern for them. Members of the other group were assigned to place a telephone call to someone else expressing love, support, and concern to them. At the end of two years, all patients were measured on their well-being, self-efficacy, physical activity, hope, and depression. The results showed an eight-fold difference. Those who placed telephone calls were eight times healthier than those whom received the telephone call. Contributing love and concern for others trumped receiving love and concern by a very wide margin.(4)
These three studies are just a sample of findings that confirm a principle most of us know to be correct: It is better to give than to receive. Serving others, making a contribution, being altruistic, displaying generosity, demonstrating kindness, and exhibiting unselfishness are more often the pathway to personal success than is focusing single-mindedly on personal achievement. Of course, possessing an achievement motive is important and often very important for reaching our goals. But when contribution goals are sacrificed in the service of personal gain, we usually accomplish much less than we could have otherwise and we sacrifice our long-term well-being.
(1) Pressman, S. (2015). Why doctors should care about happiness. TEDX at University of California at Irvine.
(2) Crocker, J., & Canevello, A. (2012). Consequences of self-image and compassionate goals. In P. G. Devine & A. Plant (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, pp 229-277. New York: Elsevier.
(3) Brown, S. L., Nesse, R., Vinokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing Support may be
More Beneficial than Receiving It: Results from a Prospective Study of Mortality. Psychological
Science, 14, 320-327.
(4) Schwartz, C. and Sender, R. (1991). Helping others helps oneself: Response shift effects to peer support. Social Science Medicine, 48: 1563-1575.