The other day when I (Suzie) woke up on a dreary weekday morning, the first thing that crossed my mind was the many, many problems in the world right now. Numerous negative thoughts flooded my brain. Not to mention my seemingly endless to-do list, which made me want to take immediate refuge underneath the warm covers.
My husband (James) who had already been up for hours working on his research, suddenly entered the room with a smile, with our delightful son in tow. I somehow caught his emotions and felt something inside me shift. In the brief moments that followed, I found the space to respond rather than react. I consciously hit the pause button on my mental chatter.
Instead of automatically uttering a complaint, as I was accustomed to doing on many mornings, I stopped myself and searched down deep for an alternate choice. Opting for positivity, I chose my words carefully. “Today is going to be a good, good day,” I said. We then both simultaneously broke out in song belting out the popular song lyrics, connected to these words, and then started chuckling together.
I immediately felt better. And apparently, so did James.
Later that day, he thanked me for being mindful of how I approached the day. He remarked what a powerful impact that one deliberate utterance had on him, not to mention our son, reminding me that we are role models to our child.
While this may seem extreme that one small comment can have such a big effect on ourselves, and others, positivity does indeed pack a powerful punch. Eminent positive emotion researcher Barbara Fredrickson has found that positivity doesn’t just make us feel good, it’s also good for us.
Fredrickson’s groundbreaking “broaden and build theory,” as we’ve previously posted, explains that positive emotions, while fleeting, help us broaden our attention in the moment enabling us to see the big picture. This wide-lens view of the world opens us to new opportunities and ideas, making us more creative and better able to see solutions to problems that may have not been obvious when we were feeling gloomy.
Additionally, positivity expands our hearts and encourages us to reach out and connect with others thus building enduring psychological and social resources.
Positivity in Good Times and Bad
Positivity has the potential to bolster our relationships and build better bonds in good times and in bad.
In fact, the latest research from Fredrickson and colleagues in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that positivity may be a powerful tool “that fosters healthy relationship adjustment during chronically stressful periods that threaten romantic relationships.”
While this study specifically focused on the stressful period of the transition to parenthood, the researchers surmised that positive emotions may help build relational resilience during a variety of tough times that threaten romantic relationships. No doubt, with so much uncertainty in the world at the moment, a pandemic and the threat to world peace, these are indeed unprecedented challenging times for virtually all of us.
Many couples have told us that they are feeling beyond stressed right now. And that their relationships are paying the price. Succumbing to stress isn’t inevitable. Nor is feeling helpless while watching our relationships potentially unravel. Rather, there are things we can do to change course. One empirically based intervention couples can do to improve their well-being is to cultivate positive emotions in their daily lives.
Ideally, both people should practice positivity in a relationship, but the good news is that even if only one person does they can spread their positivity to their partner and their partner can catch it. Just like we did in our personal example above. Our responsibility, of course, is to only spread positive germs and not infect our partner with negative ones, which of course can be difficult at times. But we can become better at it with practice.
Positivity Is Better Together
While it’s important to cultivate and experience positivity in our individual lives, when it comes to relational satisfaction it may be even more important to experience shared positive emotions with our spouse.
In fact, in a recent study published in Emotion that examined 150 married couples across three conversational interactions, Fredrickson and colleagues found that more co-experienced positive affect is associated with greater marital quality, than individually experienced affect. These findings support her previous research on positivity resonance theory, which, in part, asserts that positive emotions co-experienced between individuals is more associated with relationship satisfaction than positive emotions experienced alone.
More intervention studies are needed to replicate these findings. However, the research suggests that having more shared moments of joy may enhance overall relationship quality, at a far greater level than our individually-experienced affect.
Try it out for yourself. Conjure some shared positive emotions by engaging in activities you both enjoy. Perhaps, it’s singing together as we did. Or dancing. Or maybe something more cerebral.
Whatever it is, make sure the goal is to experience positive emotions together. And make it a regular habit. In time, hopefully, you will find that sharing joy together makes you feel better together.