What makes you happier: living in a sunny climate, getting a pay rise or falling in love? As long as you have a certain level of income, money is not the answer. Weather really affects our mood only if it's extreme and we're out in it a lot – a sunny day gives us only a small emotional uplift. The correct answer is that it's happy relationships that make us content, though research shows a reciprocal arrangement – happy people have the most fulfilling relationships.
Conversely, unhappy relationships can have an extreme negative impact. A study last month of 8,652 people between the ages of 51 and 61 found those who were divorced or widowed had 20% more chronic health problems than those who were still married. Our relationships have the capacity to improve our overall wellbeing greatly if they go right, but if they go wrong, they damage us not just mentally, but physically, too. So what can we do to ensure we have a happy relationship? Is it something that's even within our control?
Most people think about fixing a relationship only when it's broken and, traditionally, most psychology has looked at why they fracture. Only recently have researchers focused on what we can do to keep our relationships happy. John Gottman, a relationship researcher at the University of Washington, filmed 124 couples discussing problems in their relationships (how much they communicated with each other was the main issue of contention). A team of coders categorised what the couples said and how they said it. Did they seem interested, did they show affection, did they have a laugh (all good things)? Or were they contemptuous of each other, did they get angry or defensive (not good things)? Gottman and his team found they could predict with 91% accuracy which couples would split up in the next three years (17 did). They identified the main predictive factors in day-to-day communication: negativity, contempt, turning your back on each other and a harsh start-up (eg, "You're always out, doesn't it bother you we never see each other?").
Gottman then moved on to discover what couples could do to safeguard their relationships. He found that couples who said around five positive things to each other for every one negative thing had happier and longer lasting relationships. He advised softer start-ups ("It's a shame we don't see so much of each other, can we make sure we go out together this week?") and in particular that couples don't stonewall each other, refusing to engage at all.
Building on Gottman's work, Shelly Gable of the University of California has studied romantic relationships and what makes couples closer. "People have high expectations, but relationships become a treadmill and you forget to acknowledge what the other person does for you," she says. "I'm interested in people's focus in relationships: are they trying to avoid fighting and hurting their partner or are they focusing on making the greatest relationship they can? Some couples think about the good things and ignore the bad things – this is called being reward-focused. Others focus on the pitfalls – if there aren't too many, they think that's a good relationship. In romantic relationships, the research shows that there's an inevitable decline in sexual satisfaction over time, but reward-focused couples don't show that decline – their sexual satisfaction stays level."
So rather than dwelling on our problems, we should count our blessings and, in particular, help our partners count theirs. Gable's research shows that how couples respond to each other when one has good news is more important than how they support each other when things get tough.
In her recent study of 79 dating couples, she categorised four main responses to someone telling their partner good news about themselves. It's not hard to identify the best response for future happiness. Taking a promotion as an example, an active-constructive response would go: "Wow, this is great news. I know you really deserve it and you'll do really well." A passive-constructive one would be: "That's nice." An active-destructive one sounds something like, "It's excellent but are you sure you can handle it?" A passive-destructive response would be, "Well, you know, I had an exciting day, too."
Next, Gable's team compared couples' responses to positive and negative news. "The findings surprised me," she admits. "The positive responses turned out to be a stronger and more consistent predictor of the strength and quality of the relationship than a couple's response to negative news. It is a very powerful thing for someone to respond well to something good that's happened to you – it makes us feel even better about it. And if we feel good about ourselves (in a realistic way), we have better relationships."
The other big factor in keeping relationships close is showing gratitude to one another. It may sound old-fashioned but Gable's more recent research shows that being thankful for what you do for each other increases how connected you feel and how happy you are. If all else fails, you can always pretend you are happy – there are some in the positive psychology movement who believe just acting happy helps to make you so.
If keeping your romantic relationship brimming with positivity sounds like hard work, it is nothing compared with maintaining a happy relationship with your children. However much we adore them, the euphoria of becoming a parent wears off within a couple of years, according to research published in 2008. This may be because bringing up children is not something that is easy to measure in terms of happiness, at least not while you're doing it. A better measurement might be satisfaction at a job well done.
Linda Blair, psychologist and author of The Happy Child, believes that parents often forget their role is effectively to make themselves redundant and let their children get on with their lives. "These days, when parents have on average 1.6 precious children, they try to control them too much," Blair says. "Our children are not there for us. You need to praise them for the passions and interests they have. Your aim is to make your child independent and confident, to bring out their strengths."
These strengths may not always lie in the places we expect them to, such as academic achievement. Recent evidence suggests that, most importantly, we need to build resilience in our children, to give them the strength to interrupt negative thoughts they might have about themselves – related to school, their popularity or appearance. "Most events are interpretations," says Professor Jane Gillham, who has been one of the leading researchers in this area, working with 12-17-year-olds at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Centre. "If a child has a setback at school, you don't want them to think they're stupid but to get them to ask themselves, what happened here?"
In a study of the centre's programme, 347 high school students were randomly assigned to either the positive psychology or standard curriculum. The positive curriculum, in which, for example, students wrote down three good things that happened each day for a week, and identified what they were good at, showed an improvement in the students' creativity and engagement with school as well as their assertiveness and empathy.
Gillham has also run workshops with parents, using the positive psychology techniques to help children flourish. "One of our problems is to get parents to see their children's strengths," she says. "We try to get away from what we think our kids should be doing to what they are doing well. How do we help them cultivate their strengths?"
Most of us want the best for our children, she says, but we would do better to broaden out the definition of what the "best" is. It may be hard not to have a meltdown when your teenager drops out of school before their A-levels, for example, but you need to stop and ask why it's so terrible. "We often think a good life for our children is either the path we've gone down or the path we wish we'd gone down," Gillham says. Going to university may have been your road, for example, but not necessarily the best path for your child.
"It's easy to take the good stuff for granted and notice only the setbacks," she adds. "Parents and teachers should praise effort and not outcome or ability. You don't necessarily have control over outcome, but you do over the effort you put in."
Linda Blair emphasises the importance of communication. "Establish regular opportunities for your children to talk to you," she advises. "Good old-fashioned having dinner together works well, as does ferrying your child around in the car – quite often when you are not looking at each other, they'll tell you amazing amounts of stuff. What often doesn't work is saying, 'Let's sit down and have a talk.'"
Taken as goals to strive towards, rather than rules to live by, the advice offered by the positive psychology movement can help us to reshape our relationships with our children, and with loved ones. It may take a little work, but one thing borne out by study after study is that positivity breeds positivity. A little happiness goes a long way.
To some extent, positive psychology rules work for all our close relationships. In his book The Pursuit of Happiness, David G Myers suggests we should nurture our closest relationships by not taking them for granted, being kind and spending time with them. One thing he advocates we can all do is to smile broadly and act happy. Apparently it works and will make us and our relationships happier.
• What makes you happy? Join the debate