Home All Positive Relationships – Pillar or Foundation of the House of Well-being?

Positive Relationships – Pillar or Foundation of the House of Well-being?

written by Denise Quinlan 20 October 2009

Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.

Positive Psychology has been described as a discipline supported by three pillars: Positive Emotions / Experiences, Positive Traits, and Positive Institutions. In recent lectures, Martin Seligman has expanded the construct to include Positive Relationships as one of the pillars of positive psychology.

That is good news – but would it be cheeky to ask for an immediate upgrade? Relationships are central to well-being and deeply entwined with the other pillars of positive psychology. Should positive relationships be described as the very foundation of a science of flourishing, rather than a pillar?

Many of our experiences and strengths develop in, and depend upon, relationship. The rewards of knowing and acting through personal strengths may be more fulfilling and lead to greater well-being when we feel self directed and connected to others. Positive institutions are not built by architects and engineers, but by groups of people in relationship. Institutions flourish when relationships thrive and work enhances well-being.

Templates for Learning and Development

Secure Attachment

Secure Attachment

Researchers of attachment theory study how important our first relationships are to ongoing well-being and survival. Those relationships provide a template for the way infants will grow to relate to others as adults. Attachment theorists assert that secure relationships are at the core of a child’s successful intellectual, emotional, social and moral development: “The inescapable conclusion is that children’s development is shaped, for better or worst, by their closest relationships” (Moore, 2006).

Father and child

Father and child

Children who are secure in their primary relationships are more likely to explore and so learn more about their surroundings, thereby building greater knowledge and resources. Relationships provide the safe haven from which they can bravely venture forth to interact with the world. And it’s not only infants who learn better in secure relationships. School children who feel higher relatedness to parents, teachers and peers are more engaged in the classroom and perform better academically. Click here for more on relatedness and performance..


Relationships and Self-Determination
Self-determination theory shows that we have fundamental psychological needs for relatedness, autonomy and competence. When those needs are met, we enjoy greater well-being. Autonomy and relatedness in particular seem to predict emotional engagement in the classroom which leads to behavioral engagement. We learn better and enjoy better well-being when we feel connected to others and have a sense of personal choice. Researchers have yet to examine whether meeting those needs will also help people develop character strengths more effectively.

Happiness Shared is Happiness Squared

Loving Couple

Loving Couple

Positive relationships support development and learning, and they make us happy in the long-term. Ed Diener and Martin Seligman have found that the very happiest people in their studies report being in long-term relationships. Other research has shown that people with strong social networks live longer, healthier and happier lives. People who belong to a church or other close groups which play a large role in their lives experience greater belonging and well-being.

You & me, Me & you

You & me, Me & you

Researchers have studied couple and family relationships, exploring what goes wrong, and more recently, what goes right with them. Central to many theories of relationship is the concept of ‘perceived responsiveness to the self’. When we perceive that someone understands and responds to us positively, we can feel closer to that person, more trusting, secure and satisfied with our relationship lot.

Understanding, validation, and caring are important building blocks for close relationships. When we share good news with our partner and they respond actively and constructively the message we receive is “You get me, you think I’m OK, and you care about me”. Shelley Gable’s work in this area has shown that, as in many other areas, the positive is not the same as the absence of the negative. Positive behaviors and patterns build enduring relationship resources, enhance our life satisfaction, and our sense of relatedness.

Social Evolution

Netball teams

Netball teams

Relationships are important to well-being from the cradle to the grave. Some researchers argue that we have evolved as fundamentally social creatures and that relationship is essential for well-being. Jonathan Haidt’s hive hypothesis proposes that humans are hyper-social creatures like bees, and that to flourish we must literally lose ourselves and become part of the group. It is in and through our social relationships that we grow into our best selves and fulfill our potential.

So relationships are important for our survival and our well-being. But that doesn’t tell us how to make them work. I’m hoping that many of this month’s PPND’s articles will address just how we can enhance and sustain our relationships. Meanwhile, my simplest users’ guide to relationships contains three words: understanding, validation and caring. They are the gifts of positive relationships, gracefully offered and gratefully received.


Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Gable, S., Gonzaga, G., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of personality and social psychology, 91(5), 904.

Gable, S., Reis, H., Impett, E., & Asher, E. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228-245.

Haidt, J., Patrick Seder, J., & Kesebir, S. (2008). Hive psychology, happiness, and public policy. The Journal of Legal Studies, 37(S2), 133-156.

Moore, T. (2006). Parallel processes: Common features of effective parenting, human services, management and government.

Skinner, E., Furrer, C., Marchand, G., & Kindermann, T. (2008). Engagement and disaffection in the classroom: Part of a larger motivational dynamic. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 765-781.

Skinner, E., Kindermann, T., & Furrer, C. (2008). A Motivational Perspective on Engagement and Disaffection. Educational and Psychological Measurement.

Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage Press.

Perfect Love (baby and mother) courtesy of makelessnoise

Stob037 (Dad and baby) courtesy of ChrissyGombos

you & me, me & you (smiley face couple) courtesy of VJFliks

No matter it is Valentine or not ! (loving couple) courtesy of Hamed Masoumi

AUSTRALIA AND ENGLAND NETBALL TEAMS (team photo) courtesy of paddynapper

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Dr. Steve Wright 20 October 2009 - 4:54 pm

The three “pillars” (Positive Emotions / Experiences, Positive Traits, and Positive Institutions) are really a way of conceptualizing or organizing three areas/domains of positive psychology, whereas relationships really do seem to be foundational across the board. I vote for an immediate upgrade! (In case someone thinks it applies, I never claimed to shy away from being labeled “cheeky” anyway.)

Amanda Lingle 20 October 2009 - 8:50 pm

I was curious as to if Haidt’s “Hive Hypothesis” adresses a phenomenon myself and my fellow introverts have experienced- the feeling of energy depletion from too much social interaction. After a long leadership building retreat I was exhausted from interacting with people for hours at a time every day without a moment of time alone. Is it possible that the hive hypothesis changes depending on an individual’s level of introversion/extraversion?

Denise Quinlan 20 October 2009 - 11:21 pm

Hi Steve,
thanks for your comments – cheeky or otherwise 🙂
I think George Vaillant’s recent article (Yes, I Stand by My Words, “Happiness Equals Love—Full Stop”) goes even further and describes love as fundamental to our well-being.

breezy 20 October 2009 - 11:27 pm

Dear Professor,
Reading your article, I am so glad the PP has expanded and made its progress. I do agree that a positive relationship may affect a man from the infant to the adult, take myself as example, when I was young, the relationship between me and my family is not to closed or intimated, because my grandma do not like me at all, gradually I found myself self-contempt and have no confidence at all. While in University and after work, I made and got many friends which are so good related that I had some changes in the character, but the only problem is that the shadow in childhood seems to be appearing from time to time, that makes gloomy. Do you have any suggestion on that?
By the way can you explain a little bit of your ideas of “understanding, validation and caring” to gain good relationships? Especially for “Validation”, does that mean “Trust”? Thank you!!!

Denise Quinlan 20 October 2009 - 11:28 pm

Hi Amanda,
The point you make is an interesting one. Yes, introverts may struggle with unrelenting social interaction, but Haidt’s argument is broader than distinctions of personality. He is arguing that humans are a social species and that to reach our highest levels of flourishing we may need to lose ourselves and become ‘one’ with our group. Perhaps introverts will flourish by doing that less frequently than extraverts. I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that yet. I certainly know introverts who describe having had peak moments of joy being part of a large group of people at a public event.

Thanks for your comment,

Ben J 21 October 2009 - 1:49 am

Hi there,

IMHO because humans are fundamentally social creatures the relationships, encompassing the extremely positive to the extremely negative, that every individual has throughout the entirity of their life composes the core of every individual. Not every relationship that one has throughout their life has the same depth and impact. Ultimately though, the relationships that are have the most influence on shaping a person are family relationships.

I think that one of the failings of modern society is the concept of work/life balance. To my mind this makes work the first priority and life (or the meaningfullness of life) the second priority. It also doesn’t acknowledge the importance of family. And in some ways the boring grind of work butts up pretty hard against the core pillars mentioned at the start of this post.

I’ve followed positive psychology for several years know and have found it very helpful in my life. I’m glad that it’s gone past just being about “happiness studies” (in the percerption of those outside positive psychology).



WJ 21 October 2009 - 4:12 am

Denise – I suspect that relationships are a foundation.

I have to admit I am intrigued how people can like Seligman can overlook the obvious?

Denise Quinlan 25 October 2009 - 12:39 am

Breezy – thank you for the cheeky upgrade to Prof, but I’m afraid it is entirely unjustified. I am a student myself learning about these issues too. If you are interested in learning more about positive relationships and understanding, validation and caring, I would recommend reading more of Shelley Gable’s work on capitalising in relationships.

Ben – I agree with you about the importance of family relationships and I had never thought about work/life balance as putting the family out of the picture. Intersting comment. I don’t like work/life balance because ‘life’ only gets 50% at best; it assumes that work is competing with ‘life’ rather than contributing to it; and it suggests that the goal is achieving a perfect balance point. I like Fiona Parashar’s concept of having a balance zone and having things that tip us out of balance or restore us to balance (in The Balancing Act)because it acknowledges the flux of balance.

Marcial Losada 5 November 2009 - 3:37 pm


It’s hard for to me to understand how positive psychology (PP) didn’t include relationships as a pillar of their field before. To me, this was a major shortcoming of PP. I’ve shown that there is a deep connnection between relationships and P/N in the workplace in my 2004 article in the American Behavioral Scientist with Emily Heaphy (that was 5 years ago!). In that paper, I showed what P/N is linked to connectivity c by the following equation:

P/N = [c – E – 1] b(to the minus 1)

What this equation says is that P/N is equal to connectivity minus the minimum emotional field that we can create (initial condition of the field), all this compared to the negativity bias. This equation is based on results obtained after watching hundreds of teams. This result can be expressed, alternatively, in the following way: In order to overcome the negativity bias that evolution gave us to protect us against imminent dangers we need to connect to other people in such a way that we can generate emotional fields sufficiently strong to overcome that powerful bias.

Denise says, “What about us, introverts?” Excellent question. I am a certified introvert and I know what Denise is talking about. We get tired easily of TOO much interaction. The question is how much is TOO much. It could be very well be that introverts need a lower level of connectivity to fill their connectivity tanks. There is actually an upper limit to when P/N and connectivity ceases to be beneficial (see Losada Zone in Wikipedia). Introverts can get tired before reaching that upper limit, but they would not be able to flourish unless thay are able to generate the connectivity equivalent to the Losada line (about 3 positives for every negative). This translates into a level of disconnection of 25%. So we introverts need 25% less connectivity that the people who thrive connecting.

I have a sister who is a poet and tells me, “Marcial, I feel SO connected when I write poetry and I always do it alone.” What my sister forgets is that she writes her poetry after spending some fulfilling time with her children or her friends. That is an interesting observation that applies to many artists and creative people in general. My thinking on that is that connectivity is not just with other people, it could be with Beauty (in all arts) or with Nature, science, or math. I guess the point here is to trancend yourself without losing yourself. That’s why my model affirms there should be an equilibrium between other (other people or other things) and self.

But PP without c? Not possible.

Denise Quinlan 5 November 2009 - 6:22 pm

thank you for your comments. I particularly like the way you expressed our need for connectivity or connectedness: “In order to overcome the negativity bias that evolution gave us to protect us against imminent dangers we need to connect to other people in such a way that we can generate emotional fields sufficiently strong to overcome that powerful bias.” I will put this somewhere I can ponder it at length.

You remind me that what we do in relationship is generate positive emotion through feeling connected and cared for.

I am not sure I understand what you are saying about introversion and connectivity. I think your work shows that we all need connectivity to reach our P/N of 3:1. To me that says that we all benefity from a ‘disconnection’ or lack of connectivity of 25%.

I think that perhaps the difference between introverts and extraverts is the methods or routes through which we like to achieve our needed connectivity. Extraverts are happy to connect often, loudly and in groups. Introverts too need connection, but may prefer to find that connection one-to-one, in silent connection etc. Perhaps the need for connection is just as great, but it can be achieved in different ways, eg through reading a letter from some one, reflecting on the pleasure in a relationship, or in silent appreciation?

And yes, the notion that we can meet our needs for connectivity in other ways e.g. poetry, beauty etc is interesting. As you point out, these ‘connections with the self’ will occur in balance with our much needed connections with others.

many thanks again for your insightful comments,

Marcial Losada 5 November 2009 - 7:01 pm


Your point on how introverts and extroverts migh differ in the way they achieve connectivity is well taken. As an introvert, I am more into intimate connections, a few friends, time by myself to ponder on some interesting equations, going over some great chess game or savor good poetry or good food. The latter I prefer in good company, but just a few. I am not keen on large parties.

You say,

“I am not sure I understand what you are saying about introversion and connectivity. I think your work shows that we all need connectivity to reach our P/N of 3:1. To me that says that we all benefity from a ‘disconnection’ or lack of connectivity of 25%.”

What that means is that disconnection should not be larger than 25%. Some people (extrovert or other outgoing types) might need less disconnection (more connectivity). In a team of 12 people we can only afford to have 3 people disconnected if you want to be at the Losada line. When I measure the P/N ratio in my work with teams and calculate the percent of disconnection it happens that the team members can easily pinpoint who are the ones that do not connect. That number always coincides with the one predicted by the P/N ratio. This is another validation of the formula I discovered that links connectivity to P/N ratio (Losada & Heaphy, 2004). What I think we cannot say is that the people who disconnect are always introverts.

Denise Quinlan 5 November 2009 - 7:26 pm

thank you again. I think that last point is important and one that needs to be reinforced in organisations all over the world. It is not always the introverts who disconnect; disconnection from the group is not about how loudly you speak, but about the intention and the connection you make.

Most groups benefit from understanding each other further and learning to ‘re-interpret’ each other’s signals and connections. In many groups introverts desire for solitude to think can be misinterpreted as disconnection. I think when groups learn more about each other – whether that be ‘positive introductions, strengths or personality type, it is very helpful in that group members subsequently are less quick to jump to conclusions about each others’ behaviour and more likely to probe further first or ‘cut each other some slack’.


Marcial Losada 5 November 2009 - 7:58 pm

I couldn’t agree more, Denise. Thanks for stressing the point.

Udayan 21 December 2009 - 9:39 pm

It has to be true that we are fundamentally social creatures. If we were not, we would not find ourselves organized into nuclear families, extended families, friendship groups, communities, community organizations, learning communities (schools/universities, etc) sporting organizations, professional/working organizations, etc.

It is also important to recognize that there would be no well developed sense of self without others. From infancy, no language would be learned, which is our means for representing aspects of our identity. Further, our identity is formed through our interactions with others, as we reflect on the ways we are perceived and understood by others.

There have been documented cases of children who have somehow survived alone without parents or any other people, and have been discovered at some point in middle childhood. Their development in all areas, such as language, cognition, emotions, social skills, etc., are naturally grossly underdeveloped, and what is worse, having missed critical periods in brain development in which they should have been developing in interaction with others, they were never able to develop their human capacities to a level that approaches those who have been raised from infancy in human communities. Such cases highlight the crucial role of connections with others in human development.

Whilst we learn a lot of things through direct experience, and reasoning about such experience, we also learn an enormous amount of things through first our parents, then from our teachers, but more generally through everyday discussions, reading books and articles writtent by other people, etc. And our frames of reference through which we interpret our direct experiences, and reason about them, are from the earliest age cultivated by our interactions with others.

Building on an interesting point made by in an earlier post, I agree that appreciation of things such as poetry, mathematics, etc., are ways to connect with others, because we are engaging with the products of other people’s minds. And when we write poetry, or try to contribute a new mathematical theory, we are influenced by other people’s work, and make contributions to a pool of knowledge or art that is fundamentally social in its nature. This is because the themes, metaphors, techniques and structures in poetry, for example, are learned from other work, and then organized and/or synthezised in creative ways by others, and insofar as something genuinely new is developed, this will go in to influence the work of others in turn.

There is a lot of evidence herein to support the notion that humans are fundamentally social creatures, and that in order to flourish, we need relationships with others. And I have not even touched on the arguably universal human need for love, emotional connectedness, relatedness, affiliation, or whatever concept you choose to explain the fact that we need the positive experiences and emotions that come through rich and warm relationships with others.

billie 31 January 2010 - 4:54 pm

Playing with babies and reading to children while nurturing them and holding them in your lap is at the root of why Lane Nemeth founded Discovery Toys 30+ years ago. This company has made it possible for tens of thousands of moms (and some dads, too) to stay home with their children during the most formative years, zero to three. That’s when so many of the important brain connections are being set up for the rest of the child’s life.

Everything young babies and children are learning and are exposed to helps generate connections in the wiring of their brains. The more connections there are, the more successful children can be at developing new skills over time. It is believed by scientists that there are specific time periods in which certain connections are taking place most effectively in the brain: when we learn to walk, when we learn a second language, when we learn mathematical concepts, and so on. If you fail to learn these things during the critical period, you can still learn them later, but, for example, you won’t have the authentic French accent if you learn to speak French at age 20, instead of at age 2, when the window is still open.

I was only aware of the Windows of Opportunity in brain development for skills like learning a second language, but Udayan’s comment (above) about children’s emotional development fills in another piece of the Windows of Opportunity concept.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com