How to Strengthen Loving Relationships with Mindfulness

Our guide to reflecting on the relationships in your life and opening yourself up to the opportunity for love to grow.

You don’t have to wait for Valentine’s day to pause and reflect on the relationships you value in your life. Whether it be with colleagues, friends, lovers, or a spouse, you can always benefit from taking a step back, appreciating the love you have in your life and making the time to show others you care about them.

When you are mindful of the love in your life you open yourself up to the opportunity for love to grow. And not just romantic love, but self-love, and loving friendships as well.

The Benefits of Healthy Relationships

Plenty of exercise. Healthy food. Positive attitude. Plain old good luck. There’s lots of advice out there about how to keep body and brain in optimal shape as the years roll by.

But Louis Cozolino, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, is deeply engaged with another idea. In Cozolino’s book, Timeless: Nature’s Formula for Health and Longevity, he emphasizes the positive impact of human relationships.

“Of all the experiences we need to survive and thrive, it is the experience of relating to others that is the most meaningful and important,” he writes.

His thinking grows out of the relatively new field of interpersonal neurobiology, based on the recognition that humans are best understood not in isolation, but in the context of their connections with others. Our brains, Cozolino writes, are social organs, and that means that we are wired to connect with each other and to interact in groups. A life that maximizes social interaction and human-to-human contact is good for the brain at every stage, particularly for the aging brain.

Since the publication of Cozolino’s earlier book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, the field of social neuroscience has expanded tremendously. We now know that people who have more social support tend to have better mental health, cardiovascular health, immunological functioning, and cognitive performance. The well-known, long-running Harvard Medical School Nurses’ Health Study was one of the early studies to reveal how being socially integrated can lead to greater health, life satisfaction, and longevity over time.

“How we bond and stay attached to others is at the core of our resilience, self-esteem, and physical health,” Cozolino writes. “We build the brains of our children through our interaction with them, and we keep our own brains growing and changing throughout life by staying connected to others.”

6 Ways Relationships Help You Thrive

When we think about personal growth, we often envision a solo quest, like Don Quixote on a journey of self-improvement. We are advised to increase our self-control, get grittier, and develop a sense of purpose. So we hunker down, turn inward, and start the solitary task of reshaping our habits and behaviors.

And yet people who are thriving are usually doing so with the help of others. Peak athletes have coaches. Top executives have mentors. Great parents have parenting blogs and other great parents to bounce ideas off of.

Research backs this up, suggesting that positive relationships can help us succeed, grow, and become better people. Romantic partners often encourage and support one another toward shared goals. When parents are highly involved in school, their children tend to do well academically. And positive support from friends, especially during adolescence and early adulthood, can encourage us to be more empathic and helpful toward others.

Across all spheres of our lives, our relationships can not only help us feel good, but they can also help us be good. If you want to tap into these benefits, here are six simple ways to draw on your relationships to fuel your growth.

1. Spend time with the right people

We generally become more and more like the people with whom we spend our time. The more we see someone model a behavior and see that behavior being reinforced in positive ways, the more likely we are to try it out ourselves—whether it’s a friend having success with a new exercise routine or a partner staying calm during disagreements by tuning into their breath.

One of the most fundamental ways to make sure your relationships are helping you grow is to surround yourself with the right people. Some relationships frustrate us, some make us happy, and some challenge us (and some relationships do all three!). While it isn’t always easy to stop and start relationships, of course, we can aim to spend more time with the people who challenge us.

2. Create goals with others

Who says that goal setting should be a solitary venture?

When we share our goals with others, we immediately have someone to keep us accountable. It is difficult to stay on track with a goal all the time, but it’s easier if we have someone to help us work through an obstacle or pick us up when we fall.

The social support that we receive from others is incredibly powerful, particularly during those tough times. When the pressure is high, those who have greater levels of social support tend to experience less stress.

We may also be more motivated when we are working toward a goal with someone else. Think about being pushed by a running mate to jog a little faster than you would otherwise. Or giving up your Saturday for a service project because a friend is doing the same thing. Sometimes we need someone else to inspire us to be our best.

3. Ask for feedback

It’s usually up to us to decide on the areas where we could use some self-improvement. And while this process of self-reflection is important, we can sometimes be bad judges of our own abilities; we usually assume we know much more than we actually do. So why not look to our relationships as a source of feedback about where we can improve?

Feedback is crucial for our development. Research has shown that when we seek feedback and use it as an opportunity for growth, we are more likely to improve over time. How much faster would that process be if we went and asked for feedback instead of waiting for it to come? Imagine your partner’s reaction if you were to ask for feedback on what you could have done differently after a big fight, or how blown away your teenager would be if you asked how you could be a better parent this school year.

Our positive relationships represent a safe space for us to work on ourselves with support from people who care about us. But sometimes we have to make the first move and ask for that support.

4. Use your broader network

Just like financial capital, social capital is a valuable resource that we can invest in for our own good. The more meaningful relationships we have, the more social resources become available. We often find work or beloved hobbies through our relationships, even at three or four degrees of separation—like your brother’s wife’s friend, who heard about that great new job opening.

In addition to exposing us to new ideas, activities, and opportunities, social capital also frees us up to do more of the things we are good at when we find others to help with the things we aren’t as good at. This has benefits at home and at work: For example, employees are more engaged when they get to spend more time using their strengths. And teenagers are happier and less stressed when their parents focus on building their strengths.

5. Be grateful

Gratitude has long been promoted as a way of increasing our happiness, but it also motivates us toward self-improvement. If you want a simple boost from your relationships, you can start by just practicing gratitude for them. The act of being thankful can increase our confidence and encourage us to move forward with our goals, perhaps because it tends to make us feel more connected to people and creates feelings of elevation—a strong positive emotion that comes when we see others do good deeds.

So think about someone who has helped you a great deal in the past, and reach out to thank them. Not only will that exchange feel good for both of you, but it might also reignite a relationship that can spark your further growth.

6. Invest in others

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