6 Ways To Improve Your Relationship Using Positive Psychology
If you’re looking for concrete tips on improving your relationship, James Pawelski, PhD and Suzann Pileggi, MAPP's Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts is a must-read. I’ve read a lot of relationship advice books, but no other has left me with so many ideas I wanted to (and could) try with my partner immediately, as well as a lot of interesting concepts to ponder. While many self-help books are focused on solving problems, what makes Happy Together unique is its focus on identifying and expanding a relationship’s strong points.
Pawelski, director of education at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, and Pileggi, a well-being consultant — who also happen to be husband and wife — are both trained in positive psychology, a field that seeks to improve people’s lives by helping them think positively. Central to positive psychology is the idea that positive feelings aren’t just ends in of themselves; they’re also a means toward many other goals, like greater motivation at work and thriving relationships. The book cites research showing that when we're happy, we think more clearly, come up with more ideas, and more easily connect with others.
"There is so much more focus on getting together, rather than being together, and how to stay happy together," Pileggi tells Bustle. "Happily ever after doesn’t just happen, except in fairytales, of course... We like to use the concept of the “relationship gym.” Just as we can build and tone in the gym, we can build relationship muscle and flexibility."
Here are some positive-psychology-backed tips from the book to stay happy with your partner.
1. Aim To Support Each Other, Not Complete Each Other
Pawelski and Pileggi contrast the line “you complete me” from Jerry MaGuire with “you make me want to be a better man” from As Good as It Gets. The former reflects an ancient (but problematic) idea of love: Thousands of years ago, Plato developed a theory that humans were once one body consisting of two heads, four arms, etc. until the angry gods split them in two, forcing them to look for their other halves. Aristotle, however, had a different idea of love that was centered on people embracing and supporting each other as individuals. If you subscribe to Jerry MaGuire and Plato’s version of love, you can end up defined by what your partner lacks. Instead, focus on understanding what makes your partner unique and supporting them in their goals.
2. Build A Harmonious Passion, Not An Obsessive One
Most movies glorify obsessive passion, where people are completely fixated on each other. In obsessive relationships, people are slaves to their passions, Pawelski and Pileggi write. Harmonious passion, on the other hand, is under the control of the people in love. Often, obsessive passion is actually borne from insecurity, with people desperately grasping onto their partners for validation that they’re worthy and they won’t lose them. So, the way to achieve a more harmonious passion is to build trust. Pawelski and Pileggi recommend telling each other progressively bigger secrets to become more secure with each other. In addition, keep sight of yourself and all the things you took interest in before the relationship, and encourage your partner to do the same.
3. Cultivate Positive Emotions
Positive emotions, like fun, hope, and joy, are different from pleasure, Pawelski and Pileggi explain. Pleasure is usually focused on a specific sensation or emotion in the moment, while positive emotions open us up to other things around us.
To cultivate more positive emotions, plan your day to include things that make you feel positive, like working out in the morning or taking a bath at night. And behave as if you were already feeling positively. We tend to think of our behavior as the result of our emotions, but actually, the emotions and actions happen simultaneously and feed off each other. The happier you act, the happier you are likely to feel. This doesn’t mean masking unpleasant emotions but rather growing and nurturing the positive ones.
4. Savor Positive Experiences
Often, when something makes us happy, we appreciate it for a split second and then move on to something else. But the trick to cultivating more positive emotions is savoring the ones you already have.
When you get a compliment, don’t deflect it; thank the other person and ask them about what they said so you get even more kind words. When you’re out on a date, talk about how delicious the meal is or how nice it is to be in the other person’s company. When your partner shares good news, ask questions about it to keep the celebration going. Pawelski and Pileggi even suggest creating a “positive relationship portfolio” with photos and other mementos of your relationship so you can savor your best memories any time.
5. Use Your Strengths — And Appreciate Each Other’s
“Human happiness lies in doing well what we are uniquely suited for,” Pawelski and Pileggi write, paraphrasing Aristotle. The more you get to use your strengths to further causes you believe in, the better you will feel.
Pawelski and Pileggi recommend taking the VIA Institute on Character’s free 15-minute strength survey to figure out what you and your partner’s biggest strengths are. Then, tell each other “strength stories” — stories of when you used your strengths. You can each tell one about yourself and one about your partner. You can also use your knowledge of you and your partner’s strengths to plan “strength dates” that bring both of your positive traits out. And if you’re dealing with any challenges in the relationship, ask how you can use your strengths to work through them.
6. Express Gratitude
Gratitude has many physical and mental health benefits, and the more gratitude we express toward our partner, the more we’ll notice, enjoy, and benefit from the qualities we’re grateful for in them. To express gratitude in a way that really makes your partner feel special, don’t just thank them for what they’ve done. Point out the qualities in them that allowed them to do these great things. For example, instead of saying “thanks so much for helping me improve my running time,” tell them, “you’re such a good teacher and motivator.”
Pawelski and Pileggi share two gratitude exercises that are scientifically proven to make us happier. One is to write down three good things that happened to you and the reasons why they happened at the end of every day. Another is to write a letter to someone about something you never thanked them for, visit them without mentioning the letter, then read it to them as a surprise.
Of course, there's a time and place for addressing the problems in your relationship. But if you focus on amplifying what's right, you'll also likely fix what's wrong in the process.