Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts
by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski & James O. Pawelski
In ancient times, people congregated around campfires, town-squares, and stages to be mesmerized by morality plays, fairy-tales, fables, and legends.These stories had captivating characters with exaggerated personalities so that the audience could easily distinguish between right and wrong. Many stories culminated with “Happily Ever After.”
Today, as sophisticated moderns, we know that happily-ever-after only happens in fairy tales. Or do we?
Consider the iconic line from the movie Jerry McGuire, when the lead character says to Dorothy, “You complete me.” This kind of Hollywood romance reinforces the perception that the lustful exuberance experienced during the “falling in love” stage of a relationship should last forever. Smiling picture-perfect couples and families on social platforms can make it appear that everyone else is enjoying fantastic relationships, 24/7.
Based on these powerful movie and social-media messages, it’s no wonder that our notions of romantic love might be skewed so that we believe that happily-ever-after is the norm, even if it is not our experience. That can lead people to feel that their own relationships are subpar.Happy Together debunks flimsy notions of romantic love, showing that successful couples work on being happy together. Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James O. Pawelski connect their own experiences to scientific research in order to demonstrate that becoming happy, apart or together, is an on-going process of cultivating healthy habits. It takes time.
Suzie is a journalist fascinated by the science that underpins human behavior. She serves as a well-being consultant specializing on the impact of happiness on relationships and health. James is a philosopher, professor, and cofounder of the Penn Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program with Martin Seligman. Suzie and James met at the MAPP program.
Who Can Benefit?
After Suzie wrote the cover story of the January 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind, The Happy Couple, the flurry of interest inspired the couple to create the Romance and Research™ workshops. The workshop debuted at the 2014 European Conference on Positive Psychology (ECPP) in Amsterdam.
Like hundreds attending that conference, I was packed in a standing-room-only crowd. From feedback afterward, the Pawelskis concluded that people gravitated to the topic for three different but all compelling reasons:
- They have a rewarding loving relationship already. They want effective new ways to make the relationship even stronger
- They feel stuck in their current relationships. They want ways to repair or rebuild positive relationships without having to start over with new partners.
- They want to enter a romantic relationship. They want ways to make it happy, healthy, and fulfilling.
I’ve added a fourth group based on my experiences connecting with ill children and families for sixteen years.
- They belong to families grappling with serious illness. Key relationships may be strained because so much attention is focused on medical challenges, whether their relationships were thriving or strained prior to the illness. They want ways to choose to focus on what is working well and to come together with love, compassion, and solidarity in order to make each day more bearable.
Going to a Relationship Gym
Imagine reading a fitness magazine and expecting to lose four pounds simply by skimming the recommended exercise drills without doing any physical work. It’s just not going to happen, even in the movies!
The Pawelskis aptly use Relationship Gym as a metaphor to help readers realize that in order to enjoy a successful, happy relationship, both partners need to do the exercises in order to build strong love that lasts. Going to a single Pilates class is not going to make you fit overnight. It takes practice over time. Just so can you become stronger and more confident in your relationship repertoire.
I remember starting a Pilates class. I felt muscles in my abdomen, thighs, and calves that I did not know I had. Over the next few weeks the intricate moves became more familiar to me as my muscles got stronger and my confidence blossomed. In a few months, I had internalized the moves so that I was able to do the exercises at home without having my teacher shouting instructions. Relationship exercises can become second nature in a similar fashion.
Just as most gyms have more than one exercise machine to tone and build different parts of our bodies, the Happy Together Relationship Gym focuses on four areas to strengthen core components of our relationships.
In my honeymoon years whenever I saw my husband Jacob walking up the block towards our apartment, my heart would flutter. That’s hormones combined with a bit of harmonious passion. All good. After thirty-two years, I still feel warm inside when we reunite at the end of the day. Robert Vallerand’s research shows that it’s important to cultivate harmonious passion. However obsessive passion can actually be damaging and worse than not having any passion at all.
Harmonious Passion: If you’ve ever really clicked with someone, a new teacher, friend, or romantic partner, then perhaps you’ve experienced the heady feeling of harmonious passion, overwhelmed with positive emotions that make your heart sing. I was inspired by Bertha Davidson, my third-grade teacher to feel this way about expressive arts. She arranged field trips to New York City from my elementary school in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. We visited art museums. We put on plays and wrote sketches. She taught us how to listen to classical and jazz music. This formative relationship sparked a life-long passion to create art, to dance, to sing, and to learn how to play the guitar. These are harmonious passions that I enjoy to this day.
- Positive emotions have ongoing positive consequences in our lives, making us open up, like a plant stretching towards sunlight. Barbara Fredrickson calls this the Broaden and Build Theory: positive emotions broaden our sense of what is possible and build positive qualities. They cause good things to happen.
Experiencing positive emotions together builds up a strong foundation of good will, understanding, and connection that helps successful relationships bounce back from misunderstanding, hurt feelings, or life’s inevitable setbacks. As relationships mature, it’s important to cultivate positive emotions in yourself and toward your partner so that you continue to experience joy and excitement together. The book has a hearty array of delectable positive emotions and a sampling menu of Happy Together exercises you can do to experience more positive emotions.
- Savoring helps us make the most of positive emotions and good experiences. It’s so easy to take positive experiences for granted, enjoying them briefly and then getting on with our busy lives. Research on savoring shows us the value of intentionally opening ourselves as fully as we can to the positive moments while they are happening, of remembering positive moments from our past, and of anticipating positive moments in the future.
Think about the best vacation you ever took: Did you take time to thoughtfully plan the trip? Do you remember how you enjoyed the time? I remember the dreamy smell of the salt-water spray as I walked along a turquoise ocean holding hands with my partner, the laughs as our children discovered sand crabs burrowing into the sand. They spent hours slinging them into brightly colored plastic pails. Have you found yourself smiling as you looked at photos from this holiday? Do you have a photo in a prominent place where you can enjoy looking at it? If you answer YES to any of these questions, then you know what it means to savor. The Pawelskis show you more ways to savor together.
- Character is a key part of who we are and how we relate to others. Many books and articles talk about the importance of knowing and cultivating our own particular character strengths. The Pawelskis remind us that knowing the strengths of our loved ones and sharing our strengths with them can help us avoid some of the frictions and frustrations that tend to arise from differences in our personalities. Strengths awareness can help make the relationship itself greater than the sum of its parts.
Recognizing, acknowledging, and celebrating strengths in action is a sure-fire way to avoid relationship burn-out. The best part is, it doesn’t cost anything. Once you build this habit into a relationship, it fuels harmonious passion, savoring, and oodles of positive emotions.
As the calendar bends towards Valentine’s Day, Happy Together is a wonderful book for you and the important people in your life. It provides a dazzling array of easy-to-implement exercises to keep your relationships strong and energetic. The Pawelskis demonstrate that relationships can also get better with age, like fine bottles of wine.
Speaking of aging well, the launch date of Happy Together (January 16) coincides with the Pawelskis’ eighth wedding anniversary. Mazel tov!
Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcerPerigee.
Happy Together book site. Includes Meet the Authors and Learn and Share with additional resources.
Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Talking with Larry King about “Why the Grass Seems Greener”. Appears on the Happy Together channel on Psychology Today.
Pileggi, S. (2010). The happy couple. Scientific American Online.
Britton, K. H. (2011). What about passion? Positive Psychology News.
Britton, K. H. (2010). Two Bits of Wisdom about Long-Term Relationships. Positive Psychology News.
Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.
Polly, S. & Britton, K. H. (Eds.) (2015). Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Positive Psychology News.
Vallerand, R. (2015). The Psychology of Passion: A Dualistic Model (Series in Positive Psychology). Oxford University Press.
Wedding Photo of James and Suzann Pawelski used with permission of Baiada Photography © 2010
Pictures of James and Suzann Pawelski used with permission from the publisher.
Pictures of Lisa Buksbaum used with permission.
Via Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Campfire storytelling courtesy of viajeacanada