Healthy habits build long-term happiness.
In fairy tales, Prince Charming meets a fair maid. They fall in love and live “happily ever after.” End of story. It’s interesting that the relationship only begins just as the fairy tale ends. What would happen if the story continued? We’d likely see that a lot of these so-called storybook romances aren’t as sustainable as the characters would like to think. And many of them that suddenly started with magical sparks would quickly end in a puff of smoke. Perhaps Prince Charming would no longer seem quite so “charming” to his not so fair maid who ends up falling for his best friend.
Okay, let us be clear that we are not against fairy tales or romance. It’s just that the way relationships are often portrayed in popular culture does disservice to most couples. There is no magic wand, glass slipper or fairy dust that we can rely on to give us our fairy-tale ending. And “happily ever after” doesn’t just happen.
In real life, lasting love takes some effort.
When our relationships don’t measure up to the impossible ideal we see promoted and heralded everywhere we may feel utterly deflated. We soon realize that our prince or princess charming is actually a mere mortal. Imagine that! Why is it that we often rely on unrealistic expectations and wishful thinking when it comes to matters of the heart? In every other domain of our lives we are taught that it’s work and effortful doing that lead to sustainable results.
In our professional lives, for example, we don’t expect that landing our first job will immediately lead to a flourishing career. Similarly, when it comes to our health we don’t presume that simply purchasing a gym membership and exercising one time will result in a toned and fit body overnight. With both of these endeavors we spend countless hours, days, months — even years — practicing and building new skills, and putting in the necessary work, whether that be taking training classes, or training at the gym. We regularly challenge ourselves by setting new work and fitness goals to enhance our performance. Many of us pair up with mentors in our professional lives who help us navigate corporate culture. And we hire personal trainers to take our fitness levels up a notch and guide us along the way. When we hit a plateau or feel bored — which of course at times we do — rather than give up, or switch jobs or gyms, we figure out novel ways to spice up our work and our workouts to keep us engaged.
So why when it comes to relationships — possibly the single most important factor to our well-being — do we seemingly leave the “ever after” to chance? Do we think that once we are married or committed to our wonderful partner, we will be able to coast merrily along on the initial burst of warm feelings and ride together into the sunset? We are never told the details of what leads to “happily ever after” in storybook romances, and since there is no manual that comes with commitment (if only there were!) many of us are left struggling in the dark wondering what went wrong when the relationship of our dreams just doesn’t happen.
So where can we turn to for advice on what makes a couple happy together?
While there’s no definitive list of dos or don’ts or twelve simple steps to achieve a perfect relationship, there are some promising findings based on the science of positive psychology to help build a healthy connection. We are pleased to introduce this inaugural blog based on an upcoming book we wrote on the same topic. Rather than fixing what’s wrong in relationships, our posts will focus on what’s going right in our relationships and the steps we take can take to further strengthen them. Specifically, we will discuss healthy habits that couples can cultivate to become happy together over the long term. Some of the topics we will address include:
- Distinguishing between a healthy and harmful passion
- Understanding and prioritizing positive emotions
- Savoring shared experiences with one another
- Identifying, building, and appreciating our strengths and those of our partner
We look forward to sharing latest research as well as real-life anecdotes from couples and attendees of the Romance and Research (TM) workshops we’ve presented internationally over the years. And we welcome your feedback and comments.
Imagine what would happen if we put a fraction of the work into our relationships that we do into other domains of our lives. We might just increase our chance of becoming happy together.
While we don’t believe in fairy-tale endings, we do believe in forging brave, new beginnings.
The key distinction between relationships that perish and those that flourish.
In a famous scene from the Oscar-nominated film Jerry Maguire, dashing leading man Jerry — a successful and handsome sports agent played by Tom Cruise — suddenly returns to his estranged wife. He proclaims to Dorothy, portrayed by Renée Zellweger, “You complete me.” Touched and teary-eyed after his declaration, she is transfixed and tells him, “You had me at hello.”
Now contrast this famous scene with an equally popular one from another critically-acclaimed film, As Good as It Gets, in which Jack Nicholson plays Melvin, a curmudgeonly writer. He’s on a date with Carol, a warm-hearted and witty waitress portrayed by Helen Hunt. Carol remarks to Melvin that when she first met him, “I thought you were cute, but then you spoke.” Up to this point, their relationship has been struggling at best — certainly not what a storybook romance is said to be. Despite his best intentions, Melvin usually annoys Carol rather than uplifts her. In what seems like a final attempt to win her over, he tells her, “You make me want to be a better man.” She is rendered speechless.
These two famous move scenes, that we discuss in our upcoming book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts (TarcherPerigee, January 16, 2018), present two markedly different reasons for being in a relationship. Jerry feels that Dorothy is his other half, and he’s not complete without her, whereas Melvin wants to be with Carol because he sees her goodness, which motivates him to become better himself.
Take a moment to ponder your own romantic relationship — or the one you’d like to be in — and your reasons for being in it. Are those motivations more similar to Jerry’s or Melvin’s?
“You complete me.”
Jerry’s motivations seem to be synonymous with what we may think of as a storybook romance — the romantic notion that there is one ideal person somewhere out there who will “complete” us and lead us to happily ever after. This popular concept of a soul mate figures prominently in literature, poetry, religion, and philosophy. It is often referred to as that deep connection we have with someone whom we feel immediately “gets us” like no one ever did and like no one else ever could. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. We, of course, do experience and appreciate deep connections. And we understand that they may happen early in a relationship.
However, we also realize there may be dangers if we are searching for a soul mate whom we expect will forever complete us. One danger is that it may lead us to think that our perfect partner is somewhere out there, and that fate will bring us together. This view doesn’t involve any intentional action on our part, but instead leads to us wait around for romantic lightning to strike. We can see how this idea is unhealthy in that it doesn’t encourage us to work on our own self-development or practice the necessary interpersonal skills to prepare us for a relationship. (As we mentioned in our first post, happily ever after doesn’t just happen. It takes work.)
Another potential pitfall of the notion of someone “completing” us is that it may lead to codependency, in which we come to rely on that person for all of our needs. Instead of growing and learning, we lean on that person to make up for what we are lacking. We don’t mature, and our relationship stagnates. Healthy relationships, however, are characterized by a type of interdependence. Rather than “completing” us, our partners “complement” us. In this type of relationship, we stand tall together and are open to one another. We feel whole in ourselves, while appreciating the strengths of our partner, and we benefit from a mutual giving and receiving of support. We grow individually and as a couple.
Jerry Versus Melvin?
If you had to predict whose relationship would thrive, would it be Jerry’s or Melvin’s? While Jerry’s proclamation is passionate, his motivation is self-oriented. He values Dorothy instrumentally, because she completes him. We suspect that if she stops completing him, he will stop loving her.
Our bets are on Melvin and Carol, whose relationship is based on goodness. As Aristotle argued, this type of friendship is ideal, and so it’s what we have coined an “Aristotelian” relationship. Melvin sees the goodness in Carol, in the way she interacts with her customers at work and lovingly cares for her sick child, not to mention the tenderhearted way she treats him, rather than merely tolerating him. Melvin values this goodness, and it motivates him to become better himself.
As Aristotle explains, when we are in the company of people with good character, we tend to improve our character as well. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to these experiences as being moved or “elevated” by seeing “acts of virtue or moral beauty.” Elevation, an “other-praising” emotion, brings about warm feelings in us, opens our hearts, and shifts our focus from ourselves to others.
This is what Melvin experienced. Carol’s goodness had a visceral and virtuous effect on him. By the end of the film, we see a stark difference in him. The once self-involved character with the hardened heart now shows compassion toward his neighbor and has indeed become a better man.
The science of strengths can help us focus on nurturing our own relationship.
In a recent interview with cultural icon Larry King and his vivacious wife Shawn about our upcoming book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts (TarcherPerigee, January 16, 2018) we pondered the important question of “Why does it often seem that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?”
In our discussion, the topic of monogamy and commitment came up as it frequently does when discussing the challenges of marriage or other long-term relationships. Like any new endeavor, be it the gym membership that we invested in to kick start our fitness routine for the New Year or perhaps a highly coveted job we finally landed, after time the excitement naturally wanes. And when it does, boredom may set in. We may tire of our workout and work routine and may seek some novelty to reignite our initial interest.
As we mentioned in our inaugural post, Why Happily Ever After Doesn’t Just Happen, when the going gets tough, we don’t simply throw in the towel or switch up gyms or jobs and expect to build robust health or a thriving work life. If indeed we do, we will likely fail at our achieved goal of vitality or a successful career. Sometimes, though, it seems we are looking for a cure-all. Perhaps one simple, sweat-free workout class will rid us of those stubborn last five pounds and help us slip into our skinny jeans. Or, a perfect job devoid of tedious paperwork and tiresome co-workers will come along and catapult us up the corporate ladder to the corner office.
However, we don’t often realize that what is holding us back is our own lack of effort or misdirected attention. We may overwhelmingly focus on what is wrong in our situation and forget about what is going right. Despite plenty of positive things in our environment, our attention naturally fixates on problems.
So, too in our relationships. We tend to habituate to things, like the good we have in our relationship. And the good might have initially buffered against those pesky small things about our partner or relationship that always bothered us. So when we take the good for granted and stop noticing and nurturing it, those annoyances or flaws now take center stage.
Consider the famous figure-ground drawing by Dutch psychologist Edgar Rubin, what emerges is either a vase or two faces. It all depends on where we focus our attention. Similarly, in another popular perceptional illusion, our brain can interpret the reversible figure as either a beautiful young woman or a witch. Our brain can play similar tricks on us when looking at our loved ones! Many of us may focus on the flaws and no longer see the beauty, even though it’s still there.
As we discussed with Larry and Shawn and mentioned in a former post, it’s easy to mindlessly dwell on our partner’s shortcomings and what we find lacking in our lives together. This unhealthy habit can lead us to spiral downward into feeling hopeless and helpless in love.
Desperation may cause us to daydream about what it’s like elsewhere and we may start comparing our relationship and our partner with others.
Perhaps we are so consumed with peering at our neighbor’s lawn from a distance that we have neglected the beautiful one right in front of our eyes. And we may have even climbed the fence for a closer look and finally realize it’s not as green as we thought. In fact, there are weeds everywhere. We just never noticed them before. Just as we never noticed the lushness of our lawn. Not only is it important to prevent our own grass from withering, we must water it daily to keep it thriving.
One way to do that is to shift our perspective and attention to what is going right.
What are those initial qualities that attracted us to our partner? Did those traits suddenly disappear or are we so busy fixating on small annoyances that our perception is distorted and it’s all we notice?
Let’s heed some advice from the wise American philosopher and psychologist William James who emphasized the importance of voluntarily directing and focusing our attention in order to influence our perceptions. Rather than looking at what’s going wrong in our relationship or eyeing our neighbor’s grass comparing and contrasting it with our own, what if, instead, we focused on nurturing what we have?
Positive psychology can help us do that by focusing our attention on our strengths and those of our partner. Researchers have identified 24 character strengths that have existed across time and cultures. Are you creative? A natural born leader? Is social intelligence something you’re particularly good at? Or perhaps you’re especially kind? We all have a range of various strengths in a particular configuration. It’s what makes us unique.
Exercising your strengths and those of your partner’s
Once you’ve discovered your top five strengths, commonly referred to as “signature strengths,” you’re ready to put them to action in your daily life. One way to apply them in your romantic relationship is by going on regular “strengths dates.” A strengths date entails picking one of your top strengths (e.g., zest) and one of your partner’s (e.g., love of learning) and planning an outing where you both have an opportunity to exercise that strength.
For example, we planned an afternoon date where we rented Segways to tour the historical part of our city together. By the end of the date Suzie’s sense of adventure was fulfilled and James’s intellectual thirst was quenched!
Remember to take turns planning the dates—or plan them together. The main point of the activity is to have fun together, authentically connecting, not competing with one another.
We tasked Larry and Shawn King to go on a strengths date during their upcoming vacation. Stay tuned in an upcoming post for an update on how it went and what they learned about each other!
In the meantime, remember to shift your perspective to what is going right in your relationship. By finding and feeding the good in your partner and your relationship, the grass will be greener on your side of the fence.