“To get the full value of a joy, you must have somebody to divide it with.”
Valentine’s Day…a day to celebrate the importance of relationships in our lives…or just another “Hallmark Holiday”? Originally the christianization of a pagan fertility celebration, St. Valentine’s Day has now come to be the day when we recognize the most important relationships in our lives with cards, candy and other demonstrations of caring.
More and more research is pointing towards the importance of social relationships to human beings’ health, happiness and even to our longevity.
Harry Harlow (click on his name to watch a video of this experiement) was instrumental in showing how important the attachment of infants to their mothers is to their later ability to successfully parent their own offspring. Subsequent research points out that secure children are more apt to actively explore and interact with their worlds and are also more likely to be engaged and successful in the classroom.
The research of Ed Diener and Martin Seligman,(click on his name to watch a TED video by Dr. Seligman) whose work in positive psychology is becoming very popular, links people’s happiness to the quality of their long term relationships. And numerous other studies show that many types of social connectedness may also be important to health, well-being and longevity. People who are regular members of religious institutions and those who volunteer regularly enjoy a heightened sense of well-being. It is speculated that a sense of social support and belonging are the keys to why these types of activities lead to positive emotions and their attendant benefits.
This idea of relationship has been explored in the area of film lately by producer, studio president and independent film maker, Lindsey Doran. During her exploration of what really makes people love a movie, Ms. Doran has employed Dr. Seligman’s 5 pillars of well-being: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (PERMA) and has found some really surprising truths about what constitutes a popular film.
We apparently don’t need a happy ending to love a movie; we don’t necessarily need the protagonist to overcome all obstacles. Surprisingly, what we care about most is the relationships that are developed throughout the movie. Accomplishment is great but if there is no relationship in which to share it, we don’t engage the same way that we do when we see people share their victories within the bonds of strong relationships.
Matt Damon’s triumph in the recent hit, We Bought a Zoo, would not have had the same emotional impact for us had he not reconnected with his emotionally estranged son, played by Colin Ford.
When an almost 70 year-old Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) sets a land speed record in The World’s Fastest Indian, we are thrilled for him but it is in watching the people who have come to love him, cheer him on in spite of almost insurmountable odds that we fully engage with him and become an actual part of his epic quest.
It is these relationships which feed us in the real world, in the literary world and in the world of film. They may be our keys to: better health, a heightened sense of well-being and to actually extending the number of years that we have to enjoy them.
So while February 14 is the customary celebration of St. Valentine’s Day, perhaps we would do well to internalize Mr. Twain’s sentiment, that joy is greatest when shared with someone close to us. Perhpas we can decide to celebrate Valentine’s Day more often than just on February 14th and with more of the people who are important to us!
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990
Diener, E., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13 (1), 81-84.
Harlow, H.F. Early social deprivation and later behavior in the monkey. Pp. 154-173 in: Unfinished tasks in the behavioral sciences (A.Abrams, H.H. Gurner & J.E.P. Tomal, eds.) Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins. 1964.
Koenig, H.G., Cohen, J. (2002) The Link Between Religion and Health:Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor. Oxford University Press;London.
McKinney, William T. (2003). Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 2254-2255.