No man is an island and all humans thrive on love and social acceptance. Researchers have time and again highlighted the importance of strong interpersonal relationships to our health and well-being. A new paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Review emphasizes how people, in order to thrive, need meaningful relationships. Written by researchers Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University and Nancy Collins of University of California at Santa Barbara, the study also delves into the types of support that stable relationships provide and the importance of future research in this area.

Thriving doesn’t just mean living but encompasses the ability to grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents, and find purpose and meaning in life. Meaningful relationships can help people thrive, but how exactly they do it was not well researched. In the study, the authors state that thriving involves 5 components of well-being: hedonic wellbeing (happiness, life satisfaction), eudaimonic well-being (having purpose and meaning in life, progressing toward meaningful life goals), psychological well-being (positive self-regard, absence of mental health symptoms/disorders), social well-being (deep and meaningful human connections, faith in others and humanity, positive interpersonal expectancies), and physical well-being (healthy weight and activity levels, health status above expected baselines).

Adequate support whether it is from a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, or mentor can have a profound impact on the life of a person. The review talks about two types of support that an individual can receive from a relationship. The first type is support during adverse conditions, which allows the person to grow and succeed in spite of stressful conditions. "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," explains lead researcher Brooke Feeney in a statement. "We refer to this as source of strength (SOS) support, and emphasize that the promotion of thriving through adversity is the core purpose of this support function."

The other kind of support allows an individual to thrive in the absence of adverse conditions by promoting full participation in life opportunities for exploration, growth, and personal achievement. Even in the absence of stressful situations, people need support to broaden their horizons, enhance their sense of well-being, and this can be provided by meaningful relationships. This type of support is referred to as relational catalyst (RC) support because support providers can serve as active catalysts for thriving in this context. This form of support emphasizes that the promotion of thriving through life opportunities is its core purpose.

It’s not just about providing support, according to the researchers, but how the person offers support that matters. "Any behaviors in the service of providing SOS and RC support must be enacted both responsively and sensitively to promote thriving," explains Feeney. "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 support-recipient feels understood, validated, and cared for."

A support provider may do more harm than good if instead of providing words of encouragement, they constantly berate or demean the recipient. Support-providers need to be balanced and cannot be neglectful or disengaged, over-involved, controlling, or otherwise out of sync with the recipient's needs. This is a two way street and the success of the relationship also depends on the recipient, who should be able to reach out, express gratitude when needed, and engage in healthy dependence. According to the researchers accepting support when needed, and being willing and able to provide support in return, should cultivate the types of mutually caring relationships that enable people to thrive.

With this research, the authors are aiming to provide a foundation for new interventions that will focus on building close support relationships and also help people to train to be supportive. This will help them create an atmosphere of mutual respect and allow their loved ones to thrive and succeed.

Source: Feeney, B.C., Collins, N.L. A New Look at Social Support: A Theoretical Perspective on Thriving Through Relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 2014.