A Sidekick for Self-Actualization: How Our Partners Make Us Great
by Jana Lembke.
Just as every superhero has a hardworking, lesser-known sidekick, behind our biggest successes is often someone who listened to us, encouraged us, and cared about us. In fact, our relationships with others can have a big but sometimes imperceptible impact on our ability to exercise our talents. In fact, “self-actualization” is what psychologists call the process of fulfilling one’s needs and eventually achieving one’s full potential. So for the heroes in all of us seeking to discover their calling and make the world a better place, what qualities are important in a lifelong sidekick to help us become self-actualized?
One study of over 2000 married couples examined what makes a great sidekick by studying features of relationships that predict personal well-being. Importantly, there are two approaches to studying well-being. First, the approach based on the hedonic perspective concerns judgments of how good one’s life is. If you are content with how your life is going, you have high hedonic well-being. Eudiamonic well-being, on the other hand, is distinct from experiencing pleasure and is more about reaching your potential. As all superheroes know, life isn’t just about being happy – it’s about living for a greater purpose. Part of that means helping others, seeking personal growth, and managing challenges and responsibilities. Put simply, hedonic well-being is about living a pleasurable life while eudiamonic well-being is about living a meaningful one.
In the study, it was hypothesized that perceived partner responsiveness – the extent to which you feel valued, cared for, and understood by your romantic partner – would predict greater well-being over time above and beyond other variables like age, personality, and the responsiveness of friends and family – all of which can also influence well-being.
At the initial study wave, which occurred in 1995-1996, participants completed a survey that included questions about their spouse’s responsiveness. Example questions were, “how much does your spouse appreciate you?” and “How much does he or she understand the way you feel about things?” The questionnaire also included measures of both types of well-being. For example, hedonic well-being was measured by having participants rate their life overall as well as asking how often they experienced positive moods. Eudiamonic well-being was measured with questions about purpose in life, self-acceptance, personal growth, autonomy/self-determination, and effectiveness in managing life circumstances. These well-being questions were asked again in the follow-up survey 10 years later (for the spouses that were still together).
Having a responsive partner was associated with greater hedonic and eudemonic well-being at the initial assessment, even after controlling for the influence of other variables. But can your partner affect your well-being over the long term? That is, can being with a responsive partner increase personal well-being?
The answer is yes: if you viewed your partner as being highly responsive, you were more likely to show increases in eudiamonic well-being 10 years later! However, there was no link between partner responsiveness and hedonic well-being over time. These findings mean that on average, people with more responsive partners reported more growth towards self-actualization across the 10 years. But, having a responsive partner did not necessarily lead people to feel more satisfied with their lives over time.
In a follow-up analysis with the same data, the authors found evidence that the link between responsiveness and eudiamonic well-being may be because when we perceive our partners as being generally responsive to our needs, we react less negatively to daily stressors. Feeling valued by those closest to us – even without being aware of it – may help us effectively deal with life’s difficulties. So, it may be that having a responsive partner helps us feel less nervous, sad, or hopeless when bad things happen in our lives, allowing us to effectively deal with the situation and get back to progressing towards our goals.
Various studies have found eudiamonic well-being to be associated with productivity, physical health, and a decreased risk of depression. This research suggests that being with a caring partner over the years may also help us lead a meaningful life. While every relationship has its ups and downs in terms of daily happiness, if you’re with someone who understands and appreciates you through it all, you’ve got the perfect sidekick to help you reach for the stars.
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