Interpersonal Relationships and Irrationality as Predictors of Life Satisfaction
by Jeffrey J. Froh
Christopher J. Fives
St. John’s University
J. Ryan Fuller
St. John’s University and The Albert Ellis Institute
Matthew D. Jacofsky, Mark D. Terjesen, and Charles Yurkewicz
St. John’s University
This study examined the association among interpersonal relationships, irrational beliefs, and life satisfaction. Twenty-eight psychotherapy clients and 207 college undergraduates completed measures of interpersonal relations (Outcome Questionnaire; Lambert et al., 1996), irrationality (Rational Behavior Inventory; Shorkey & Whiteman, 1977), and life satisfaction (The Satisfaction with Life Scale; Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985). Results indicated that interpersonal relations predicted life satisfaction, whereas global irrationality was indirectly related to life satisfaction. Specifically, interpersonal relations mediated the association between global irrationality and life satisfaction. Clinicians aiming to foster life satisfaction in their patients are encouraged to carefully assess their social functioning and utilize relationship-enhancing treatments. Targeting irrational thinking may also be necessary to set the stage for and support such interventions.
Keywords: Interpersonal relationships; irrationality; life satisfaction; positive psychology; acceptance; well-being.
Interpersonal Relationships and Irrationality as Predictors of Life Satisfaction
Prior to World War II, psychology had three main missions: (a) make the lives of all people fulfilling; (b) identify and enhance human excellence; and (c) treat pathology (Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Nonetheless, clinical psychology has largely focused on decreasing maladaptive emotions and behaviors (Baltes, Gluck, & Kunzmann, 2002). Although symptom reduction is an integral part of treatment it may not be sufficient for facilitating life satisfaction or happiness (Jahoda, 1958; Snyder & McCollough, 2000). While treatments have been developed and evaluated for psychological disturbances, optimal functioning, until recently, has been largely ignored (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi).
Happiness is conceptualized in the literature to consist of three components: (a) frequent positive affect, (b) infrequent negative affect, and (c) high life satisfaction (i.e., the cognitive component). Collectively, these three terms are called “subjective well-being” (for reviews, see Diener, 1984; Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). Although related, the three aspects of subjective well-being appear independent as multitrait-multimethod analyses conducted by Lucas, Diener, and Suh (1996) showed that each of these variables were discernible from one another. Given the distinct nature of each, it is reasonable to conclude that alleviating negative affect may not result in an increase in positive affect and overall life satisfaction (Fuller et al., 2003; Leaf, DiGiuseppe, Mass, & Alington, 1993; Terjesen & Froh, 2005). A simple conceptual model to understanding this is that by solely treating the negative affect, an individual may have simply gone from -5 to 0 and not to +5. Support for this view comes from a great deal of empirical evidence demonstrating that negative and positive mood states are not mutually incompatible or polar opposites (for a review, see Watson, 2000).
This is not to say that happy people do not experience negative affect; in fact they do (Diener, 1984; Diener et al., 1999; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005a). Happy individuals, however, experience infrequent negative mood states and frequent episodes of positive affect (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1991), suggesting that a life characterized solely by infrequent negative affect does not result in a sense of well-being. Consistent with the previously reviewed definition of happiness, it seems that it is the combination of high life satisfaction, infrequent negative affect, and frequent positive affect that leads to the experience of happiness. Therefore, in order to promote positive psychological functioning among our clients it is important to target both negative sequelae and promote overall well-being (Jahoda, 1958; Snyder & McCullough, 2000).
Cognitions, Interpersonal Relationships, and Maladaptive Emotion
Congruent with the third mission of psychology, cognitive psychotherapies (e.g., Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979; Ellis, 1962; 1994) have attempted to identify dysfunctional cognitions, which are associated with particular psychopathologies: depression (Nelson, 1977; Thyer & Papsdorf, 1981), anxiety (Zwemer & Deffenbacher, 1984), and anger (DiGiuseppe & Froh, 2002; Hogg & Deffenbacher, 1988; Tafrate, Kassinove, & Dundin, 2002), and subsequently target them for change and replacement. One type of cognitive psychotherapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), suggests that emotional responses are the result of external or internal events (i.e., activating events) and the irrational beliefs, or evaluative cognitions, about those activating events. Proponents of REBT maintain that, “cognition is the most important proximal determinant of human emotion” (Walen, DiGiuseppe, & Dryden, 1992, p. 15) and “dysfunctional thinking is a major determinant of emotional distress” (Walen et al., 1992, p. 16). REBT theory suggests that if people replace their irrational beliefs with rational beliefs they will tend to experience healthy negative emotions (e.g., sadness, concern), rather than unhealthy negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety) or symptom distress. Certainly, challenging and replacing one’s irrational beliefs with cognitions that are more consistent with social reality has been shown to be an efficacious intervention for treating symptom distress (e.g., Chambless & Gillis, 1993).
Beyond faulty cognitions, individuals who frequently experience negative affect also tend to experience poor interpersonal relationships. “The depressed patient generally does not function at his normal level in nearly all areas of his life, including his social life” (Beck et al., 1979, p. 204). Two possible reasons why negative affect and quality of interpersonal relationships are associated are the following. First, poor interpersonal relationships may lead to emotional disturbance. Joiner (2002) suggested that social withdrawal is a risk factor, and not just a consequence of depression. A study by Vanderhorst and McLaren (2005) found that having few social support systems was related to increased levels of depression and suicidal ideation. Moreover, high quality interpersonal relationships may mitigate the relationship between ethnicity (i.e., minority status) and depressive symptoms (Plant & Sachs-Ericsson, 2004). Research conducted by the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1951/1897, as cited in Haidt, 2006) suggested that, “people who had fewer social constraints, bonds, and obligations were more likely to kill themselves” (p. 133). Consequently, it is likely that building strong and supportive interpersonal relationships reduces symptom distress, depression, and perhaps even suicide. The efficacy of interpersonal psychotherapy as a treatment for depression (Chambless et al., 1996; Elkin et al., 1989) supports this conclusion.
Second, high levels of emotionality may interfere with the initiation and maintenance of social relationships. Numerous studies have demonstrated the evocative function of emotion with negative agent affect evoking a complementary or similar emotion in observers. For example, agent anger can elicit fear as a complementary emotion (see Dimberg & Ohman, 1996, for a review) whereas agent sadness may rouse a similar feeling of melancholy in observers (Batson & Shaw, 1991). In both cases, the chronically angry or sad person is less likely to achieve successful relationships because of the negative feelings that they elicit in others, thus possibly attenuating the agent’s life satisfaction.
Quality Interpersonal Relationships and Well-Being
Consistent with the first mission of psychology (i.e., making the lives of all people fulfilling), recent research has demonstrated that socializing and expending resources to maintain and enhance social relationships are important components to well-being enhancement. According to Argyle (2001) “social relationships have a powerful effect on happiness and other aspects of well-being, and are perhaps its greatest single cause” (italics added, p. 71). Similarly, Myers (1992) stated, “short of torture, society’s worst punishment is solitary confinement” (p. 148). A voluminous literature does indeed support a strong relationship between social relationships, happiness, and well-being (Argyle, 2001; Diener, 1984; Diener & Seligman, 2002; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005a; Myers, 1992; Pinquart & Sörensen, 2000). For instance, individuals in close relationships report better physical, mental, and emotional quality of life, as well as more adaptive coping responses to stress and adversity (Myers, 1992; 1999). Current research also suggests that quality interpersonal relationships predict both life satisfaction and negative symptomology above and beyond having a sense of meaning in life (Froh & Terjesen, 2005). In short, strong social relationships seem to be robustly related to subjective well-being and an overall enhancement in quality of life.
Cognitions and Well-Being
Unfortunately, little research has been carried out in order to identify specific cognitions that are predictive of happiness and life satisfaction. Lyubomirsky (2001) suggested a construal theory of happiness, proposing that in order “to understand why some people are happier than others, we must understand the cognitive (italics added) and motivational processes that serve to maintain or enhance both enduring happiness and transient mood” (Lyubomirsky, 2001, p. 240). In line with Lyubomirsky’s logic that cognitions need to be investigated as predictors of subjective well-being, Shorkey and Reyes (1978) found a moderate association between cognitions and self-actualization, which is the maximum realization of our potentials, talents, and abilities (Maslow, 1954). Moreover, Lichter, Haye, and Kammann (1980) discovered that a mere discussion of Dyer’s Erroneous Zones (1977), which is based on Ellis’ (1962) notion that feelings result from evaluations about an activating event, led to increases in happiness and satisfaction at both the 2 week posttest and a 6 week follow-up. In a second experiment, Lichter and colleagues (1980) found that the daily rehearsal of positive statements (e.g., I have confidence in my decisions) for 2 weeks led to significantly greater levels of happiness and less depression at post-test for the treatment group compared to controls. Despite these implications mental health practitioners typically focus on reducing dysfunction without approximating optimal functioning (Jahoda, 1958; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). That is, changing the dysfunctional beliefs associated with negative affective and behavioral states is emphasized rather than directly fostering the development of positive psychological states (e.g., subjective well-being).
Cognitive restructuring is not limited to reducing maladaptive, unhealthy cognitions but also plays an essential role in some positive psychology interventions. In fact, optimism training has been empirically validated as an efficacious treatment for depression, as well as a means of increasing happiness (for a review, see Seligman, 1998). Empirical evidence also exists suggesting that the cognitive exercise of counting one’s blessings is associated with well-being, life satisfaction, and optimism (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2006). It should be noted that the cognitions targeted in positive psychology interventions differ from those typically given focus in tradition cognitive restructuring treatments. More specifically, the cognitions targeted by positive psychologists appear to be directly related to life satisfaction (e.g., forgiveness, mindfulness, counting one’s blessings, and optimism for the past, present, and future, respectively) (Seligman, 2002), whereas thoughts targeted in cognitive psychotherapies, such as REBT, seem to relate more to dysfunctional behavior and emotions (Ellis, 1994).
Although some may argue that cognitive restructuring is needed to attain happiness, contraindicative evidence also exists. Rodrigue, Baz, Widows, and Ehlers (2005) found that quality of life therapy was related to improvement in quality of life, mood disturbance, and social intimacy, whereas cognitive restructuring might not have been a necessary treatment component. Moreover, in a retrospective review of quantitative self-report mental health records, Leaf et al. (1993) found that a measure of satisfaction with life remained unchanged throughout therapy. In fact, the authors reported, “the clients who remained in treatment for long periods were typically more unhappy (lacking positive well-being) than distressed” (p. 499). In light of these findings, it is plausible that irrationality has a marginal relationship with life satisfaction. Cognitive restructuring, therefore, may be more beneficial for symptom reduction than enhancing life satisfaction.
The Present Study
The purpose of the present study was to further clarify the relationship among interpersonal relationships, irrationality, and, life satisfaction (i.e., one component of happiness). Given the vast amount of research supporting the link between quality of interpersonal relations and life satisfaction, and the notion that symptom reduction alone is minimally related to well-being, it was expected that quality of interpersonal relationships would predict life satisfaction. It was further anticipated that interpersonal relationships would contribute substantially more to the prediction of life satisfaction than global irrationality. Because the cognitions generally targeted in cognitive behavioral treatments such as REBT appear more related to reducing symptom distress rather than directly increasing life satisfaction, it was hypothesized that irrational cognitions would not predict life satisfaction after controlling for quality of relationships. This is not to say that irrational cognitions are unrelated to life satisfaction. Instead, we anticipated that an association between overall maladaptive cognitions and satisfaction with life would be found, yet would be mediated by quality of interpersonal relationships. For instance, we propose that individuals with irrational cognitions are more likely to display negative affect and dysfunctional behaviors, which may then decrease the quality of their social network. Specifically, the negative impact of their affective and behavioral tendencies on others may lead to a failure in establishing and sustaining meaningful relationships. In turn, poor relationships contribute to low life satisfaction.
Important treatment implications can be derived from the results of this study. If maladaptive cognitions are found to be unrelated to life satisfaction once quality of interpersonal relationships are controlled for, then it would be advisable for practitioners of cognitive-behavior therapy to incorporate relationship building interventions (e.g., interpersonal psychotherapy) in their treatment plans if the therapeutic goal is the attainment of happiness and not merely symptom reduction. However, if it is found that irrational thinking is indirectly associated with life satisfaction (i.e., quality of interpersonal relationships mediate the relationship between irrationality and life satisfaction), it may suggest that irrational cognitions need to be addressed not only to reduce symptom distress, but to help set the stage for and increase the successfulness of life satisfaction enhancing interventions, such as relationship building.
Two hundred and seven undergraduate students attending three New York based academic institutions volunteered to participate in the study. Additionally, 28 patients were recruited from a non-profit outpatient training/treatment center, yielding an overall sample of 235 participants. The sample had a mean age of 23.27 (SD = 7.7), with 16 participants failing to report on age. Seventy-nine percent of the sample was female. The ethnic makeup of the sample included 75.7% Caucasian, 8.9% African American, 5.5% Hispanic, 4.3% Asian, .9% American Indian, and 4.3% Other, with one participant failing to provide information about ethnicity.
Rational Behavior Inventory. The Rational Behavior Inventory (RBI; Shorkey & Whiteman, 1977) is a 37-item self-report measure of irrationality. The RBI is based on definitions of irrationality as conceptualized in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) (Ellis, 1962). This measure consists of 11 subscales including: (1) catastrophizing, (2) guilt, (3) perfectionism, (4) need for approval, (5) caring and helping (6) blame and punishment, (7) inertia and avoidance, (8) independence, (9) self-downing, (10) projected misfortune, and (11) control of emotions. The RBI uses a 5-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” An overall rating of irrationality (i.e., RBI Total Score; RBI TOT) may be obtained by summing the scores for all 11 factors of the RBI, with higher scores reflecting greater levels of irrationality.
Regarding reliability, the RBI TOT has been shown to demonstrate a split-half reliability coefficient of .71 (Shorkey & Whiteman, 1977) and internal consistency for the total score is strong, with alpha coefficients ranging from .82 to .86 (Sanderman, Mersch, Van der Sleen, Emmelkamp, & Ormel, 1987). Test-retest reliability for the RBI TOT has been shown to be adequate, with coefficients of .82 and .71 at three and ten day follow-up administrations, respectively. Significant correlations with various measures of trait and state anxiety in both clinical and non-clinical samples, as well as other personality measures (e.g., authoritarianism, dogmatism, and self-esteem) indicate strong concurrent and convergent validity (Shorkey & Whiteman, 1977).
Outcome Questionnaire. The Outcome Questionnaire (OQ; Lambert et al., 1996) is a 45-item self-report measure designed for repeated administration before, during, and at treatment termination to assess common symptoms across a wide range of adult pathology and role functioning. The OQ utilizes a 5-point Likert scale ranging from “never” to “almost always,” which indicates how frequently the individual thinks, feels, or behaves in a particular way. A total score can be obtained by summing up all of the items. In addition, the OQ is comprised of three separate subscales including Symptom Distress (SD) (i.e., degree of depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, and suicidality), Interpersonal Relations (IR) (i.e., satisfaction with friendships and family and marital relationships), and performance of Social Roles (SR) (i.e., satisfaction with work relations and leisure activities). For each scale of the OQ, including the total score, higher scores are indicative of greater levels of disturbance.
The authors (Lambert et al., 1996) report that internal consistency and test-retest reliability have been assessed with clinical and non-clinical (i.e., undergraduate students) populations. Internal consistency coefficients obtained for a clinical population were: OQ total score (? = .93), SD (? = .91), IR (? = .74), and SR (? = .71). Similarly, internal consistency coefficients for a non-clinical student population were as follows: OQ total score (? = .93), SD (? = .92), IR (? = .74), and SR (? = .70). Test-retest reliability obtained 3 weeks after an initial administration using only a non-clinical student population were as follows: OQ total score (? = .84), SD (? = .78), IR (? = .80), and SR (? = .82).
Concurrent and construct validity of the OQ have been assessed with student, clinical, and community populations. Moderate to high validity coefficients (i.e., .53 to .88) have been found between the OQ total score and various criterion measures, whereas somewhat lower validity coefficients have been reported for the subscales (i.e., .41 to .71). Construct validity has also been established by the scale’s ability to distinguish between student, clinical, and community samples, as well as its sensitivity in detecting changes during treatment (Lambert et al., 1996).
The Satisfaction with Life Scale. The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS; Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985) is a 5-item self-report measure. The scale uses a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” and reflects the degree of agreement with statements relating to global life satisfaction. Scores on this scale range from 5 to 35 with higher scores indicative of greater levels of overall life satisfaction. The SWLS is internally consistent, with reported alpha coefficients exceeding .80 across numerous studies (Pavot & Diener, 1993). This instrument has adequate test-retest reliability, with the original validation sample yielding test-retest correlation coefficients of .82 over a 2-month period.
Regarding validity, scores on the SWLS have been demonstrated to significantly correlate with other measures of subjective well-being (e.g., Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale) and personality characteristics related to positive psychological health (e.g., high extraversion and low neuroticism) (Diener et al., 1985). Additional evidence of construct validity comes from the instrument’s sensitivity to life changes and the ability of the scale to discriminate between populations expected to differ in terms of life satisfaction (e.g., prisoners and psychiatric patients) (Pavot & Diener, 1993).
Participation was voluntary and no compensation was given. Prior to completing the measures, informed consent was obtained by all participants. Upon obtaining consent, packets consisting of a demographic questionnaire, the RBI, the OQ, and the SWLS were distributed. Given the sensitive nature of the constructs assessed (e.g., suicidality) and in keeping with best practices and ethical guidelines, participants received a list of potential referral sources if they determined that they were in need of additional therapeutic resources. The measures were given in all possible orders to counterbalance any potential order effects.
Data transformation. Prior to running analyses it was decided that ethnicity and study site would be transformed due to the homogeneous nature and limited number of cases (e.g., < 30) found for some levels of these variables. Specifically, the six categories of ethnicity were collapsed into two categories: white and non-white, and the four study site categories were collapsed into two categories: non-clinical and clinical. The following dummy codes were entered into the regression equations: female = 0, male = 1; white = 0, non-white = 1; and non-clinical = 0, clinical = 1. Any missing cases were deleted listwise.
Internal reliabilities and correlations. Composite scores were created for the SWLS, RBI TOT, and IR scale of the OQ. The created composites were based on previous findings on the factor structure of these measures (Diener et al., 1985; Lambert et al., 1996; Shorkey & Whiteman, 1977). Because this study focused on the relationship between global irrationality and life satisfaction, composite scores were not created for the 11 original subscales of the RBI. Noteworthy is that the factor structure of the RBI was inconsistent with that reported by the authors, which may be due to sampling variation. Internal reliability analyses conducted for each scale revealed the following: SWLS (? = .89), RBI TOT (? = .88), and IR (? = .79). All scales demonstrated good reliability and were comparable to previously reported reliability data. Moreover, all correlations among study variables were significant (see Table 1). Noteworthy is the high association between the SWLS and the IR scale (r = -.62). Although these variables are highly correlated, they also appear to be independent constructs, because the SWLS, unlike the IR scale, assesses general life satisfaction and does not include items specific to interpersonal relationships.
Descriptive statistics and main effects. Total score sample means and standard deviations for all scales are reported in Table 1. A series of one-way ANOVAs were conducted to determine if there were any main effects of demographic variables on the SWLS that might confound the results. Main effects were shown for gender, F (1, 226) = 7.32, p = .007, partial ?² = .03; ethnicity, F (1, 225) = 9.18, p = .003, partial ?² = .04; and study site, F (1, 226) = 7.18, p = .008, partial ?² = .03. Inconsistent with prior research suggesting that men and women are about equally as happy (Keltner & Harker, 2001), female participants were found to have slightly higher levels of life satisfaction than male participants. With respect to ethnicity, white participants reported somewhat higher levels of satisfaction with life than non-white participants consistent with previous research (Campbell, Converse, & Rodgers, 1976; Moller, 1989, as cited in Argyle, 1999). Lastly, participants from non-clinical settings reported higher levels of life satisfaction than individuals from the clinical setting. This would make sense given that participants seeking therapy were presumably doing so because they were not satisfied with some aspect of their lives. A summary of these main effects is shown in Table 2.
Predicting Life Satisfaction
Hierarchical regression analysis was used to test the first two hypotheses that: (a) quality of interpersonal relationships would significantly predict life satisfaction, and (b) irrationality would not predict life satisfaction after controlling for quality of relationships. To control for the previously reviewed main effects, gender, ethnicity, and study site were controlled for when predicting satisfaction with life. Statistically significant findings over and above the effects of these demographic variables are reported and the results of these tests are summarized in Table 3.
As expected, IR predicted the SWLS variable, R² change = .30, F (1, 216) = 109.64, p < .001. In addition, consistent with the second hypothesis, the RBI TOT failed to significantly predict the SWLS variable after controlling for the IR variable, R² change = .00, F (1, 215) = 1.10, p = .296. An examination of squared semi-partial correlations revealed that after removing the common variance between the IR and RBI TOT variables, IR accounted for approximately 20% of the variance in SWLS, whereas the RBI TOT variable explained minimal SWLS variance (i.e., < 1%)
Although this finding points to the importance of interpersonal relationships in explaining satisfaction with life, it does not necessarily follow that irrational beliefs are unimportant in determining life satisfaction. It may be that irrational cognitions influence life satisfaction indirectly through their association with interpersonal relationships. In other words, individuals characterized by higher levels of irrational thinking may be more likely to experience relationship difficulties, which in turn results in lower life satisfaction. To test this third hypothesis a mediation analysis was conducted following the recommendations of Judd and Kenny (1981).
Interpersonal Relationships as a Mediator
Judd and Kenny (1981) have indicated that mediation can be tested by estimating the following three regression equations: (a) regressing the mediator on the independent variable, (b) regressing the dependent variable on the independent variable, and (c) regressing the dependent variable on both the independent variable and on the mediator. To establish mediation the independent variable should affect the mediator in the first equation and the independent variable must affect the dependent variable in the second equation. In addition, the mediator must affect the dependent variable in the third equation. Mediation is shown when these conditions are in the predicted direction and the influence of the independent variable on the dependent variable is less in the third equation than in the second (Baron & Kenny, 1986). As with the previous analyses for the SWLS variable, gender, ethnicity, and study site were entered as the first set of predictors for all of the following tests. The first condition necessary for mediation was met as the RBI TOT significantly predicted IR, ? = .48, t (222) = 8.22, p < .001, and explained a significant portion of variance in this variable, R² change = .22, F (1, 222) = 67.53, p < .001. Likewise, the second condition was met as the RBI TOT significantly predicted the SWLS variable, ? = -.31, t (220) = -5.11, p < .001, and explained a significant amount of variance in life satisfaction, R² change = .09, F (1, 220) = 26.07, p < .001. To establish the remaining conditions required for mediation, the SWLS variable was regressed on both the independent variable (i.e., RBI TOT) and the potential mediator (i.e., IR). As expected, this equation was significant, R² change = .30, F (2, 215) = 55.39, p < .001. Once IR was entered into the model, the relationship between the RBI TOT and SWLS variable dropped from ? = -.31 to ? = -.06. Whereas RBI TOT no longer affected SWLS (p = .296), the association between IR and SWLS remained strong and significant (? = -.54, p < .001). Sobel’s test (Sobel, 1982) indicated significant mediation (z = -5.91, p <. 001). Collectively these results demonstrate that quality of interpersonal relationships mediated the relationship between global irrationality and life satisfaction (see Figure 1).
In sum, the above findings support the contention that quality of interpersonal relationships predicts life satisfaction, whereas overall irrationality failed to predicted life satisfaction after controlling for the influence of interpersonal relationships. The findings of a mediation analysis, however, are consistent with the theory that overall irrational thinking influences life satisfaction indirectly through its association with interpersonal relationships. It appears that individuals with higher levels of irrationality may be more likely to experience relationship difficulties, subsequently engendering lower life satisfaction.
From its inception psychology had three overriding missions, which gave attention to both mitigating pathology and approximating positive psychological functioning (Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Some have suggested that psychology has devoted a vast amount of its resources to therapeutic interventions that focus primarily on symptom reduction (Jahoda, 1958; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi; Snyder & McCollough, 2000). As a result, great strides have been made in treatment, as evidenced by the development of numerous empirically-based interventions (Seligman, 1994; 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi). Nonetheless, since decreasing negative symptomology does not necessarily guarantee an improvement in the quality of one’s life (Fuller et al., 2003; Jahoda, 1958; Leaf et al., 1993), it is imperative that sufficient attention also be given to the advancement of life satisfaction.
According to Baumeister and Learys’ (1995) belongingness hypothesis, maintaining ongoing, meaningful, reciprocal, and caring relationships with others is intrinsic to the human condition. Consistent with this view and the findings of numerous investigations (Argyle, 2001; Diener, 1984; Diener & Seligman, 2002; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005a; Myers, 1992; Pinquart & Sörensen, 2000), the results of the current study suggest that the quality of social relationships in a person’s life is strongly associated with his or her life satisfaction. Given this finding, clinicians are encouraged to dedicate careful attention to the interpersonal functioning of their patients. Relationships with significant others, including colleagues, friends, family members, and romantic partners should be assessed on an ongoing basis and relationship-enhancing interventions (e.g., active-constructive responding; Gable, Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004) should be utilized in treatment. Therapeutic methods derived from interpersonal psychotherapy, such as communication analysis may be particularly useful.
For many in psychotherapy, relationship-enhancing interventions probably will not be successful unless underlying psychopathology is addressed prior or simultaneously. Our data indicated that the association between irrational cognitions and life satisfaction is mediated by quality of interpersonal relationships. This is consistent with the view that individuals with higher levels of irrationality are more likely to experience relationship difficulties, which is then associated with a lower degree of life satisfaction. In line with the theory of REBT and the evocative function of emotion (Keltner & Kring, 1998), it may be that individuals with irrational cognitions are more likely to experience and demonstrate unhelpful negative emotions and maladaptive behaviors, which in turn interferes with the initiation and maintenance of social relationships. For example, high levels of irrationality are believed to lead to dysfunctional emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression; as well as unhelpful behaviors such as aggressiveness, social withdrawal, and excessive emotional dependency. These emotions and behaviors are likely to foster unpleasant feelings in others, thus contributing to poor social relationships.
We originally aimed to investigate a more complex model that incorporated mood as a possible intervening variable between irrationality and interpersonal relationships. However, mood, as measured by the Symptom Distress scale of the OQ (Lambert et al., 1996), was not used in analyses due to poor reliability (? = .32) in the current sample. Therefore, though we believe mood may explain the link between irrationality and interpersonal relationships and may ultimately clarify why interpersonal relationships mediate the association between irrationality and life satisfaction, further research is needed to test this hypothesis.
If interpersonal relationships do indeed mediate an association between irrational beliefs and life satisfaction, targeting irrational cognitions and associated pathologies may be necessary to set the stage for and increase the successfulness of relationship-enhancing treatments so that a higher level of life satisfaction can be achieved. To this end, traditional cognitive-behavioral interventions such as cognitive restructuring, relaxation training, and exposure will be useful. In addition, consistent with the functional analytic psychotherapy approach (FAP; Kohlenberg &Tsai, 1991), dysfunctional interpersonal problems stemming from psychopathology could also be identified, addressed, and ultimately changed by taking advantage of therapist-client relationship learning opportunities (TCRLOs). This method is based on the idea that the relationship between the therapist and client is a social environment that could potentially elicit and alter problematic interpersonal behavior as they occur within therapy sessions (Kohlenberg et al., 2004). It should be noted that we are not the first to advocate for the inclusion of cognitive and behavioral methods in positive psychology interventions as other authors such as Frisch (2006) have discussed the role of emotional management skills in the pursuit of life satisfaction.
Although the mediational analysis results of this study are consistent with our a priori hypothesis, alternative interpretations are also plausible. For instance, it is possible that quality of interpersonal relationships influence both the degree of irrational thinking and overall satisfaction with life. In other words, the relationship between irrationality and life satisfaction may be spurious because it is confounded by a third variable, quality of interpersonal relationships. If such is the case, the use of relationship–strengthening techniques may have the effect of reducing irrational thinking without directly targeting such cognitions, while also contributing to the individual’s overall satisfaction with life.
Limitations and Future Directions
Several limitations of the present research should be noted. First, generalizations based on the current findings should be made with caution because the majority of participants were female undergraduate college students. Although the nature of the sample impacts its external validity, the findings are not without merit, especially when interpreted in the context of psychology’s mission to enhance the life satisfaction of all individuals. Future research should be carried out with varied populations (e.g., clinical and non-clinical) taking into account differences among individuals (e.g., gender, culture, SES, ethnicity, etc.).
In addition, only global irrationality, as based on the theory of REBT, was examined. Other types of cognitions relating to optimism (Seligman, 1998), gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Froh et al. 2006), and best possible selves (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006), which may have a direct relationship with life satisfaction and happiness, should be empirically investigated. Indeed, “the subjective element is essential” (i.e., top-down processes) (Diener et al., 1999, p. 277) in understanding happiness, thus making the continued identification of specific cognitions held by happy people an important step in establishing the “good life.” Given that some suggest (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005b; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2004) that 40% of happiness can be enhanced via intentional activity, it is plausible that altering one’s cognitions, either directly, or indirectly as a facilitating prerequisite, can lead to sustainable well-being and life satisfaction.
As previously stated, a comprehensive conceptualization of subjective well-being includes aspects of high positive affect, low negative affect, and high life satisfaction (Diener, 1984; Diener et al., 1999). The present investigators focused on life satisfaction, one of the three components of well-being. Therefore, future research should examine the effect of interpersonal relationships on all three dimensions. Future efforts should also focus on developing empirically supported treatments (Chambless, 1995) that would teach our patients the skill sets necessary for personal growth, human excellence, and life satisfaction.
The correlational and concurrent design of this study precludes conclusions concerning causality. To more clearly affirm the directionality among specific cognitive patterns, quality of interpersonal relationships, and life satisfaction, researchers are advised to use longitudinal research designs in future studies. This methodology would support recent efforts indicating that happiness indeed causes success such as relationships, objective health, income, and work performance (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005a). As discussed earlier, the inclusion of a mood indicator in future investigations is needed to clarify the mechanism by which irrational thinking might influence interpersonal relationships. The development and empirical analysis of more complex models that include mood may also help clarify whether the relationship between irrational beliefs and satisfaction with life is spurious or is indeed mediated by quality of interpersonal relationships. Experimental research could also be conducted to determine whether the enhancement of interpersonal relationships results in a reduction in irrational thinking and a concomitant increase in life satisfaction. Finally, the findings of this study were based solely on self-report data. Therefore, it could be argued that the associations found among quality of interpersonal relationships, irrational beliefs, and life satisfaction may be due to shared method variance. In future studies, researchers should consider making use of a multi-method multi-informant approach to assessing constructs of interest.
In order to promote positive psychological functioning among patients, as well as individuals from other populations, clinicians should aim to mitigate negative symptoms and approximate life satisfaction and overall well-being (Jahoda, 1958; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Specific to this latter goal and based on our findings, fostering strong interpersonal relationships appears to be one way to maximize well-being. Therefore, therapists are advised to thoroughly assess interpersonal issues, establish treatment goals, and offer empirically supported treatments to enhance social functioning during the course of treatment. Traditional cognitive-behavior methods such as cognitive restructuring decrease negative symptoms and may also help support interventions aimed at improving interpersonal functioning and subsequent life satisfaction. Conversely, based on the previously noted alternative explanation of our mediational analyses, use of relationship-strengthening techniques may automatically reduce irrational thinking while also improving the individual’s life satisfaction.
There is hope that psychotherapy patients can experience a sustainable increase in well-being if taught the proper skill set, particularly those related to relationship enhancement. In order for such to be achieved, the focus of psychology will need to shift from mere symptom reduction to an approach that integrates goals and treatment plans related to happiness. To achieve this aim, practitioners must keep in mind that
The key implications of this for practice are that the goals of intervention, within a therapeutic context at least, do not begin and end with the target of the client being symptom-free. Rather, the applied positive psychologist, working to facilitate the client’s OVP (organismic valuing process), would not consider their work done when the disorder had been treated. Instead, they would continue through the zero point of neither ill-being nor well-being, and work with the goal of the facilitation of well-being (Joseph, Linley, Harwood, Lewis, & McCollam, in press, as cited in Linley & Joseph, 2004, p. 724).
We are most grateful to several anonymous reviewers who provided extremely helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.
1. Interpersonal relations mediates global irrationality-satisfaction with life (z = -5.91, p < .001).
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Total Score Sample Means, Standard Deviations, and Correlations Among Study Variables
Variable M SD 1 2 3
1. SWLS 23.57 6.75 ? -.27* -.62*
2. RBI TOT 104.21 16.51 ? .44*
3. IR 11.54 6.18 ?
Note. SWLS = The Satisfaction with Life Scale; RBI TOT = Rational Behavior Inventory Total Score; IR = Interpersonal Relations.
*p < .01.
Summary of Main Effects of Demographic Variables on the Satisfaction With Life Scale
Variable M SD F ?p2
Gender 7.32* .03
Male 21.32 6.79
Female 24.20 6.62
Ethnicity 9.18* .04
White 24.29 6.56
Non-white 21.18 6.83
Study Site 7.18* .03
Clinical 20.04 7.50
Non-clinical 23.97 6.56
*p < .01.
Hierarchical Regression Analysis Summary for Interpersonal Relations and Irrationality Predicting Satisfaction with Life
Variable R² ?R² ?F ? sr²
Step 1 .12 .12 10.22**
Gender -.11* .01
Ethnicity -.13* .02
Study Site -.12* .01
Step 2 .42 .30 109.64**
IR -.54** .20
Step 3 .42 .00 1.10
RBI TOT -.06 .00
Note. IR = Interpersonal Relations Scale; RBI TOT = Rational Behavior Inventory Total Score.
*p < .05. **p < .001.
Figure 1. Path model from global irrationality to satisfaction with life. * p < .001.