By Supporting Others, You Support Yourself: Findings from Social Psychology
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For many of us, our close relationships are among the most important parts of our lives. However, we often don’t realize just how important these relationships are for our health and well-being. For example, a recent study[1] found that having good quality relationships reduces the risk of mortality—and that this effect is as large as the effect that quitting smoking has on health! If relationships play such an important role in our well-being, how can we work to foster better interpersonal relationships? Many of us may already know what not to do in relationships, but sometimes it’s more difficult to know what we should be doing. Below are three ways that social psychologists have found that we can effectively work to strengthen our relationships and help those close to us.

Learn the best ways to support them. It’s not too surprising that social support has an enormous impact on health and well-being: people who believe that others will be there to support them have better outcomes in terms of both mental and physical health. However, one counterintuitive finding from social psychology research is that actual incidences of social support can backfire: on days when people can recall receiving social support from a close other, they can actually sometimes feel worse. So if you notice a loved one is going through a tough time, what can you do about it?

Research by Niall Bolger[2] at Columbia University has suggested that one way to effectively provide support to a loved one is to offer invisible support: that is, support that the recipient is unaware of. People sometimes find it unpleasant to ask for help or to become aware that they need to rely on others, so providing support to someone without their awareness can sometimes be especially beneficial. Since learning about this finding, this is something I’ve tried to put into practice. For example, if I know that my boyfriend will have to pull an all-nighter to finish his work before a deadline, I’ll try to buy him a couple of energy drinks and his favorite snacks. Of course, if you choose to offer invisible support to someone, it’s important to be mindful of your own needs and to be aware of how much support you’re able to provide, in order to avoid feeling overburdened from providing too much support to someone else.

Other research has found that social support is beneficial to the extent that it is responsive[3]. Responsive support is support where one engages in understanding, validation, and caring. In other words, ask questions to be sure that you understand what the problem is, let the person know that their concerns are valid, and remind them that you care about them. For example, if your friend has been having a tough time at work and is thinking about changing jobs, take the time to figure out what parts of their job are most stressful for them, rather than making assumptions about why they don’t like their job. Remind them that having doubts about one’s career is normal. And let them know that you’ll be there to support them regardless of the decision they make.

Celebrate with them. Imagine your partner comes home after work and announces that they just received a promotion. Do you rush to congratulate them on the good news and tell them how proud you are? Or do you point out the potential pitfalls of the promotion, such as increased hours or more responsibilities? The process of responding to someone else’s good news (called capitalization[4] in the world of social psychology) has important implications for both the person sharing the good news and the quality of the relationship. Beneficial outcomes occur when one’s partner responds enthusiastically and supportively to good news (what psychologists call active constructive responding), as opposed to when one’s partner minimizes the event, mentions potential negatives, or doesn’t react very strongly either way. Active constructive responding is associated with increases in positive emotion, life satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction. Moreover, responses to positive events may be even more important than responses to negative events. One study[5] of dating couples asked the couples to discuss both a positive and negative event, and measured their relationship quality two months later. It was found that responses to a positive event actually predicted later relationship satisfaction better than responses to a negative event.

Help them achieve their goals. In addition to providing comfort during times of stress and allowing us to share and celebrate successes, close relationships also play an important role in helping us achieve our goals. According to research by the psychologist Caryl Rusbult[6], people have an “ideal self” that consists of the traits and abilities they would most like to have, and those who are close to us can help us by behaving in a way that is consistent with our ideal self. But does this type of support for goals make a difference? Research suggests that it does: in one study, couples were videotaped discussing a goal. When someone was more supportive of their partner’s goal (for example, by helping the person to make plans or simply voicing their support of the goal), their partner was actually more likely to achieve the goal after a few months.

It pays to help. It might not come as a surprise that providing support to others can be beneficial to ourselves as well. After all, it feels good to do something nice for someone you care about. But what you might not know is just how much these types of behaviors can affect your own well-being and physical health.  A study by researchers at the University of Michigan[7] found that when older adults provide support to others, they’re more likely to live longer.  As humans, we’re fundamentally wired to want to connect and form relationships with others—so when we help those close to us, we may also be helping ourselves!

You can learn more about these interesting findings from social psychology by reviewing the links below:

[1] http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000316
[2] http://www.columbia.edu/~nb2229/docs/bolger-zuckerman-kessler-jpsp-2000.pdf
[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19549083
[4] http://www.psych.rochester.edu/people/reis_harry/assets/pdf/GableReisImpettAsher_2004.pdf
[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17059309
[6] http://paynelab395.web.unc.edu/files/2012/08/Rusbult-et-al.-2009-The-Michelangelo-Phenomenon.pdf
[7] http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/14_4Brown.cfm

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology.  Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health.  Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.


  1. Pretty awesome article, easy reading but info-packed. I really enjoyed reading this and will start employing some of these pointers at home!

  2. This article reminded me of a time in my life where I learned the importance of support. Back in my late 20’s I was training to become a massage therapist and one of my internships took place at a nursing home. The plan was that I’d go over there and put up my sign up sheet for massage and then come back a few days later and have some people to work on. What ended up happening was that all the people who signed up for massages would actually just want to hang out and talk while I rubbed lotion on their hands, cut their nails and trimmed their ear hair. We’d talk about their lives at the nursing home, their lives before they were there, their lives when they were married or were children. I’d spend hours with them, sometimes from noon till the dinner bell, talking about their parents or the war, their social security checks, gossiping about the nurses or the secret love affairs going on between patients. I’d help them ask for things they wanted but felt unable to get, such as a new board game in the rec room, or call their kids and ask them to come visit, or beg for more creamed spinach at lunch. I only spent a few months there but I made a lot of new friends, offered more support and love than I knew I had, and felt more appreciated and understood by people I barely knew than ever before. Just listening, being there, reflecting back what I heard and offering love made such a huge difference in their lives, and mine. We are truly social creatures and being loved and supported is the foundation for feeling strong and confident in ourselves.

    • Thanks for sharing your story… that sounds like such a wonderful experience to have had. I definitely agree with you, sometimes just being there to listen is one of the most important things we can do to support others.

  3. Nice article. Certainly a good reminder for me to strive to be supportive in my relationships. I like the positive approach, that is, talking about what to do rather than what not to do.

    While reading, I thought of John Gottman’s research and the factor he identified which can be thought of as warning signs when frequently seen in a relationship: contempt, defensiveness, criticism, and withdrawal/stonewalling. He stressed that seeing these factors does not necessarily mean the relationship is going to end. However, if I remember correctly, he found the last one to be particularly indicative of trouble in a relationship.

  4. Thank you for being specific about what kind of support is helpful in relationships. Giving and receiving support seems like it would be intuitive but, strangely enough, it is a skill set. I’ve often been in the position of needing support and had someone say, “what do you need?”, not knowing how to answer and feeling pressured in the process. I’m going to focus on my active constructive responding in my current relationships, as I think this is such a crucial skill. I love that you point out how we need to find out how others like and need to be supported. It is so different for all of us. I know there are plenty of times where I’d appreciate the silent support and will think more about the people in my life who I can do this for. As a social worker, supporting is my career. I have had experiences of trying to help others that have been successful and unsuccessful. All of us have experienced those times when we try to support or help someone we care about and our efforts fail. So thank you for the constructive tips on how to help in ways that are actually supportive.

    • I’m glad you liked the article! I definitely agree with you that providing support is a skill set and something that takes practice. Ever since I learned about active constructive responding, I’ve been trying to incorporate it into my relationships as well.

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