Every week, my wife and I have a meeting where we talk about what is going well in our family, but also what we could be doing better. She knows when I am giving less than my best, and she calls me out on it—which isn’t always easy to hear. But I know I’m lucky to be married to someone who always challenges me to work on myself and become a better person.
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. Even those contemplative Buddhist monks who seem to be at the pinnacle of self-transcendence are almost always surrounded by other transcendent monk friends.
Research backs this up, suggesting that positive relationships can help us succeed, grow, and become better people. As my wife and I have experienced, 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 different 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 whom we spend our time with. 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 trying to breathe more.
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.
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.
This doesn’t mean finding someone who is better than you so that you can try to be like them. Instead, think about how your strengths can complement someone else’s. Maybe your sibling is detailed and organized while you are more adventurous, and you can rub off on each other as you take a trip together. You can learn from others while they are learning from you.
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. If I tell my wife that I am trying to stay away from sugar, all she has to do is give me that look when I pick up a doughnut to remind me of my commitment. 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.
If we take one step further by setting goals with others—like running a half-marathon together or taking classes together to learn a new language—then we won’t feel so alone when the journey gets tough.
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.
If you don’t know how to do something or where to start with a new goal, find someone in your network who does.
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.
The act of being thankful can increase our confidence and encourage us to move forward with our goals.
Imagine you are training to be a doctor because you want to help people. During a particularly challenging stretch of medical school, you decide to spend some time being thankful for all the people who have helped you get to that point. In doing so, you realize all you have accomplished with the help of others, which boosts your confidence. You feel so inspired by the help others gave you that you get a boost of motivation to complete your program so that you can go out and help others, too.
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
As you’re tapping into your relationships for social capital, you can contribute to the growth of others, as well—which is another way to show gratitude.
We as humans are motivated by reciprocity. When we receive a favor, we often want to pay it back (or pay it forward). So offer to help a neighbor with a home improvement project just like another neighbor helped you. Or reach out to someone you have helped in the past, and check in to see how they are doing.
While supporting others is meaningful in and of itself, it doesn’t hurt that it tends to be a mutually beneficial experience. We help someone else, and we usually feel pretty good—and might even learn something in the process. That is one reason why mentoring has become so common in the workplace. It is an exchange that benefits both parties, as the mentee gains valuable wisdom while the mentor gets to brush up on skills and take in new perspectives.
As my wife and I have set goals together over the years, I have pushed her to be more spontaneous and explore the world, while she has helped me to be more focused in pursuit of my passions. I am grateful for her, and that motivates me to make the world a better place. Now that we have begun to pay it forward to our children, hopefully they too will seek out relationships that bring out their best. Because those are the kinds of relationships that help us all.