PC: Your book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts has just come out and it shot to the top of Amazon’s new releases. Why do you think there is such a demand for this new approach and your work?
S&JP: We believe people are hungry for information on how to be happy together. We wrote this book because there is so much focus in our culture on getting together rather than being together and staying together. So much emphasis on the wedding — rather than the marriage — and all the decisions we need to make for just one day, a magical day no doubt, but what about all the days to come once we are married? There isn’t much out there that tells you how to be happy together. Unlike in fairy tales, “happily ever after” doesn’t just happen. It’s healthy habits that build happiness over the long haul.
PC: How is Happy Together different from all the other books on relationships?
S&JP: It focuses on what’s going right in relationships, rather than what’s wrong in them. It’s the first book on applying the principles of positive psychology to relationships.
PC: The two of you seem to be the perfect couple to have written this book because of your work in positive psychology. But I am sure people will want to know what happens when the two of you have a conflict. How do you manage it?
S&JP: There’s no such thing as perfect, of course. The word “perfect” comes from Latin and means “thoroughly done.” So a relationship can only be perfect if it’s over.
We have our challenges like any other couple. We are fortunate to have the tools of positive psychology at our fingertips. Heeding advice from the wise philosopher William James we practice directing and focusing our attention. Rather than dwelling on problems we take a strengths-based approach to our relationship and concentrate on what is going well. And we practice building healthy habits. We slip up, of course, and then try again.
Additionally, instead of focusing on what we get out of the relationship, we focus on what we put into it. Specifically, we look to find and feed the good in one another and our relationship. Our goal is to become better as individuals and as a couple. We hope to spread this message to as many people as possible.
PC: What are character strengths?
S&JP: Positive psychology researchers have identified 24 strengths that have been valued across time and cultures that each of us possess to varying degrees. Things like: creativity, zest, love of learning, and leadership.
Strengths are different from skills. They are what make you you. We all have a range of various strengths in a particular configuration, which — along with our personality and life circumstances — makes us unique. You can discover your particular profile by taking the free Via Survey on our website at: https://www.buildhappytogether.com/resources/.
PC: How can individuals and couples practice using their strengths?
S&JP: Once you have identified your top 5 strengths, commonly referred to as one’s “signature strengths,” you’re ready to put them into action. First, choose one of your signature strengths. Next, brainstorm ideas on how you can use this strength more in your daily life. Jot down specific steps you could take for applying this strength in healthy ways. Finally, use this strength in a new way every day for the next week. Each day, choose a different activity from your list or come up with a new idea. The point of the exercise is to experiment with seven new ways you can use this strength over the course of the week.
Additionally, we recommend couples begin having strengths conversations with one another in order to explore more deeply what the strengths personally mean to each other and how they can be used in their relationship. Strengths can help us focus on what is going well in the relationship and strengths conversations can help us communicate to one another who we really are at our core. They help us understand our partner and feel understood as well.
PC: What is a “strengths date”?
S&JP: One way to apply strengths 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 rented Segways to tour the historical part of our city together. By the end of our date Suzie’s sense of adventure was fulfilled and James’s intellectual thirst quenched!
Take turns planning the dates or, if you prefer, you can plan them together. Remember, the main point of the exercise is to have fun together, authentically connecting, not competing, to build a stronger bond.
About the authors:
Suzie is a freelance writer specializing in the science of happiness and its effects on relationships and health. Her Scientific American Mind cover story in 2010 on “The Happy Couple” was a catalyst for the book, and James is Professor of Practice and Director of Education in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and cofounder of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program with Martin Seligman.