Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, MAPP '07, is the founder of Flourish, an organization dedicated to using research based tools to enable individuals and organizations to flourish. Emiliya fuses the best of Eastern philosophy with Western science to provide people with holistic tools to increase their happiness, well-being, and sense of flourishing. Full bio.
Emiliya's articles are here.
“Loving, selective, enduring attachment… scientists find such love difficult to talk about,” says Dr. George Vaillant, renown psychiatrist and author. Love as noun is hard to measure. Love as a verb or an action is more tangible. Consider taking a Valentine’s Day date where your loving activity capitalizes on research from positive psychology.
Here are four suggestions for sharing with your partner, friend, or family member:
1) Strengths Date
The Values-In-Actions Strengths Questionnaire (VIA) is a classification of the positive side of the human experience: the VIA describes what is right with you. Research shows that people who discovered their strengths and used their strengths in a new way every day for a week increased their happiness and decreased depressive symptoms (see graphs below, Seligman et al. 2005) up to six months later. Dr. Karen Reivich, co-author of The Resilience Factor and co-creator of the Penn Resiliency Program, suggests taking a strengths date to facilitate capitalizing on your strengths in a way that can bring people closer together.
Have your partner, friend, or family member take the VIA Signature Strength Survey. Take as many of your top strengths as you see fit, and sculpt an activity together that taps into the individual strengths for both you and your sweetie or friend.
For example, my Valentine and I both shared Curiosity and Interest in the World as our first strength and Forgiveness and Mercy as our fourth. Additionally, he had Judgment, Critical Thinking & Open-Mindedness, Love and the Capacity to Be Loved and Love of Learning. I had Gratitude, Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness, and Perspective/Wisdom.
Together we researched quotes about Love and Forgiveness from the wise, the famous, the infamous, and the every day person. Then we imagined that we were going to present at a debate on the topics of Love and Forgiveness. We used the quotes to analyze what others said about what love is. How does forgiveness work? How do these two concepts interplay? What are its outer limits?
With this newly created knowledge, we discussed ways to incorporate it into our future. We ended it by expressing gratitude to one another for specific insights that were raised during the conversation.
2) Savor a Meal… Blindfolded
Research shows that savoring increases the experience of positive emotions, gratitude, mindfulness, pleasure and engagement (See the book Savoring by Bryant and Veroff). It is easy to take basic things for granted such as foods, sensations and sounds. This activity is one of my personal favorites.
Depending on how daring you are, you can blindfold your partner on the way to a restaurant. Lovingly guiding them through the city and later the restaurant will enable them to engage their sense of smell, touch, and hearing. Try to prevent your partner from finding out what they are going to eat. Rather than reading the order to your waiter, point to the menu. As your courses come out, allow your partner to first smell the food and guess what it might be. Then feed small morsels to them so they can savor all the flavors.
My partner and I did this once. To this day, one of his fondest moments was guiding me around New York City blindfolded. According to him, the expressions on people’s faces, while watching us have so much pure, radiant fun, seemed to light others up. We met people on the street, played guessing games, and spread our joy to our waiters, taxi drivers, and passersby.
3) Partner Yoga
Research by Carson et al. (2004) found that relatively happily, nondistressed couples who followed a mindfulness-based relationship enhancement program reported benefits such as increased amounts of relationship satisfaction, relatedness, and optimism.
Partner yoga is a great way to accomplish this. It involves moving your body together, coordinating your breathing, using eye contact and communication, all in a nurturing, loving manner. You both get to stretch, strengthen, and play. Whether you are a trained yogi or can barely touch your toes, there are partner poses and exercises you can do together.
As a yoga instructor, I generally find time to practice yoga and partner yoga because I feel the benefits that researchers write about. I can vouch for those benefits. And Valentine’s Day is a wonderful day to find such programs near you. (Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of Partner Poses with Emiliya for a video tutorial).
In a study by Seligman et al. (2005), participants completed a gratitude visit which involved writing a letter expressing gratitude to someone that has positively impacted their lives and reading the letter in person. Participants reported increased happiness and decreased depression (see charts on left). A recent dissertation by Gurel Kirgiz Ozge (2008) found similar benefits in writing a gratitude letter. According to numerous articles in The Psychology of Gratitude (2004), people who express gratitude report greater life satisfaction, optimism, physical health, energy, and connection with others.
In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman suggests laminating your gratitude letter so the recipient can keep the memento. “Take your time composing this [letter]… read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression and eye contact” (Seligman, 2002, p. 74). Seligman also recommends reflecting and reminiscing afterward on how the person has affected your life.
Gratitude is one of the most important concepts to me personally, and so, building on solid research to enact true good for yourself – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spitritually – I highly recommend regular expressions of gratitude. And Valentine’s Day is a natural time to express such emotions to each other.
Valentine’s Day can be a time to honor the people you love. You can always bring positive psychology tools and techniques to this holiday. Capture the experience through photos, journaling, scrapbooking, or just being present and in the moment. Discuss ways of creating these connections with your partner on non-holidays as well.
Love is a journey, not a destination.
Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ozge, G.K. (2008). Effects of gratitude on subjective well-being, self-construal, and memory. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 68(7-B), 4825.
Emmons, R. & McCullough, M. Eds. (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude (Series in Affective Science). Oxford University Press.
Pilkington, K., Kirkwood, G., Rampes, H., & Richardson, J. (2005). Yoga for depression: The research evidence. Journal of Affective Disorders, 89,13-24.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.
Images: Owned by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya unless otherwise indicated, such as the charts from research papers.