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How to have happier relationships

Barbara Fredrickson studies the psychology of positive emotions, including love. Her research offers tips to build happier relationships and bring more love into our lives.

Barbara Fredrickson sits in a decorative chair in a lounge
Barbara Fredrickson, a Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology, poses for a portrait in the Graham Memorial Lounge on February 13, 2020, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Barbara Fredrickson is an expert on the science of love.

For more than two decades, Fredrickson has studied the psychology of positive emotions. Now the UNC-Chapel Hill professor is focusing in on one of those emotions: love.

Whether it’s the love between family members, friends or romantic partners, Fredrickson said the emotion has profound effects on our bodies and minds.

“All emotions, whether they’re positive or negative, they’re not just ideas roaming around in our heads. They’re embodied experiences that involve a lot of physiological changes,” she said. “People’s day-to-day feelings of connection contribute significantly to their health and longevity.”

In plain terms, love makes us healthier, happier and more resilient. Fredrickson’s research offers tips to bring more love into our lives.

First, rethink the concept of love

We often think of emotion as a private or individual experience, Fredrickson said. But love is a shared emotion between two people.

She calls this concept positivity resonance — the idea that love is a feeling that reverberates between two people, whether they are romantic interests or not.

“I study the times when we feel like our joy is being reflected back to us by another person, and it kind of ricochets back and forth,” she said. “Those moments seem to be especially important for people’s mental and physical health, their relationship satisfaction, and their sense of belonging and community.”

Experience positive emotions as a couple

One way to increase positivity resonance is to do something together that you both enjoy.

“If you want to use this area of science to improve or strengthen an important friendship or romantic bond, it’s about finding things that you both enjoy doing and spending time experiencing positive emotions at the same time,” she said.

You can sometimes achieve the same feeling by giving a genuine compliment or saying “thank you,” Fredrickson said.

“Those moments when positive emotions are welling up for both people at the same time, those kinds of shared positivity moments really fortify and nourish a bond,” she said. “If you think your relationship is in need of a little booster shot, that’s one way to get it.”

Make eye contact

One of the simplest ways to connect with others is to look them in the eye. It might sound simple, Fredrickson said, but it helps us become more empathetic partners and friends.

“When you make eye contact in a warm, curious, friendly way, whatever the other person is feeling kind of jumps the gap between you because we’re more likely to mimic a facial expression,” she said. “It’s a neural mimicry that gives you a clue about the subtleties of what the other person is feeling.”

Connect with strangers

Outside of our close relationships, Fredrickson encourages people to connect with those we don’t know as well.

“I think the way our society is transitioning is that if people don’t have a good friend in the room, they start looking for a good friend online or they turn to their screen,” she said. “But studies suggest that the more we connect with strangers and acquaintances — the more positive connection we feel with people we don’t know very well — the happier we are at the end of the day. Those smaller forms of connection that we have with others that are really mild and subtle, they equally deserve to be called love.”