Traditional advice on relationship building, both personal and professional, usually involves more anecdote than science. So naturally, when we ran into the first-ever book that focuses on how positive psychology research can improve romantic relationships, we had to read it. And because we believe in using science-backed strategies for making life as meaningful as possible, we had to share what we learned. Below you’ll find three ways to focus on relationship building that can apply to your personal and professional life, inspired from the book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build a Love that Lasts.
How Can You Work on Building Positive Relationships?
Before we get started, we should mention that while the book itself focuses primarily on personal and romantic relationships, we think these tips apply to relationship building of all kinds. So don’t let the word “love” throw you off—there’s good stuff here. We’ll show you how to use it to better your connections across the board. After all, good relationships are connected to happiness in huge ways, according to an ever-expanding body of research. Consider this a specific and practical approach to applying that research to your own happiness.
We’re going to focus on just three tips—practicing positive emotions, showing gratitude, and celebrating character strengths. But the book itself has over thirty. So go grab a copy if you like what you see.
1. Work on (and celebrate) positive emotions
Perhaps it’s no surprise that focusing on positive emotions, over negative ones, aids in relationship building. But there’s more to it than just feeling positive and waiting for a stronger connection. First, you have to know what positive emotions are, why they’re important, and how to practically practice them.
There are 10 positive emotions that are frequently studied in research, according to Dr. Barbara Frederickson’s book, Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life: love, joy, amusement, awe, gratitude, serenity, pride, interest, inspiration, and hope. Pillegi-Pawelski and Pawelski, authors of Happy Together, write that these emotions “help us forge strong connections with others by breaking down boundaries that separate us from each other.”
These emotions served an evolutionary purpose too, according to Dr. Fredrickson, who discovered that positive emotions were just as important for human survival as negative ones. As a result, Fredrickson founded the broaden-and-build theory. The broaden-and-build theory says that the more positive emotions we experience, the more we enhance our perspective, and the more fulfilled we feel. Positive emotions cultivate our creativity, our cognitive-functioning and, you guessed it, our relationships.
Think of a snowball rolling down a hill—as soon as it starts rolling, it picks up more snow and gets bigger. Positive emotions work like that too. Once you start the ball rolling, you’re able to practice more and more positive emotions and thus experience more positive effects. (Bonus points for not being cold.)
Simply prioritizing positivity and positive emotions can help build your relationships. But the bigger question is: How do you actually do it? Thankfully, Pileggi-Pawelski and Pawelski have some answers.
In order to practice positive emotions, you have to prioritize positive emotions.
According to Fredrickson, “prioritizing positivity means making decisions and organizing our lives in a way that are likely to result in the experience of positive emotions.”
If you’re working on personal relationship building skills, ask yourself this question: What do you and the people you love like to do together? Have a conversation about the things you want to do more of and create time for those things.
If you’re working on professional relationship building skills, ask yourself these questions: What positive interactions have you had with your colleagues, supervisors, bosses, or others in your network? How can you replicate those in other contexts? Maybe you and a colleague bonded over your love for data-driven strategy. (It can happen.) Invite them to collaborate on your next project, request that they review the numbers, or just ask for their opinion on your approach.
Not feeling super positive? Act like it anyway.
Otherwise known as fake it until you make it.
This is a solo technique that can affect relationships of all kinds. It’s pretty simple, even if it takes some convincing to try it. Choose one of the positive emotions that you want to practice and practice it. Adopt the emotion’s gestures, expressions, activities, and breathing techniques.
The more we cultivate our own positive emotions, the more likely we are to pass them along to others.
…which magnifies their beneficial effects on our relationships. In other words, “be so positive that your mate can’t help but be positive, too.” You can catch emotions, so make sure the ones you’re throwing are positive.
2. Show gratitude
We’ve been down the gratitude route before, and that’s because it’s such a well-researched happiness technique. Cultivating gratitude leads to greater life satisfaction, optimism, altruism, and positive emotions. And those good feelings extend to the connections with those around you.
So what is gratitude again? How does it work for relationship building specifically? And how do you express it in a way that supports those connections? For these answers, we turn to some badass researchers in positive psychology.
In their book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, two founders of positive psychology, define gratitude like this:
…a sense of thankfulness and joy in response to receiving a gift, whether the gift be a tangible benefit from a specific other or a moment of peaceful bliss evoked by natural beauty.
Robert Emmons, who is the researcher on gratitude (for real—he wrote two best-selling books on it and has done tons of research on why and how it works) found that those who consistently practice gratitude have better relationships and are less lonely. His research suggests that showing our appreciation for others builds intimacy, strengthens bonds, and increases connection in relationships.
So all-in-all, gratitude is a quick way to boost your bonds and something we should all do more of. But how?
3 of the best ways to express gratitude
It turns out that some ways to express gratitude are better than others, according to researcher Sara Algoe. Here are the three of the best ones:
- Be others-focused: Concentrate on praising aspects of people’s actions, personality, or strengths. Not the watch they gave you.
- Be authentic: You can’t fake it until you make it when it comes to expressing gratitude. Express your appreciation at a time when you’re comfortable and can do so authentically. If this feels awkward, especially with a colleague, try jotting down your thoughts in a quick email and sending it to them when they need it most. Like a Monday.
- Be sensitive to context: From a personal standpoint: If your loved one doesn’t like grand gestures, don’t thank them on the Red Sox scoreboard. A thoughtful card might be more appreciated. From a professional standpoint: Pay attention to your colleague’s preferred communication method. Maybe they don’t love email but Slack messages are fair game. These preferences give you great insight into how your gratitude will be most appreciated.
3. Celebrate character strengths
Caveat: We should all know our character strengths. And we should also all know what character strengths, in general, are. But don’t worry if you don’t—we’ll take care of that. Celebrating these strengths in any relationship requires both, or all, parties to have this info. So you might want to save this section for relationships you want to really dig into.
Each of us has 24 innate character strengths, according to research from the VIA Character Institute. And these character strengths can tell us a lot about how we think, feel, and behave. We each possess all 24 strengths, just to varying degrees. The top five strengths that come most naturally to us are known as our signature strengths. They’re things like humor, leadership, zest, kindness, and honesty.
Not sure what yours are? Now is the time to find out. Take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths for your signature strengths and before trying any of the relationship building exercises below. And make sure the other person (or people) in the relationship you’re working on does the same.
3 ways to use your signature strengths for relationship building
- The Strengths Stories Exercise: Think about a time when you put one of your five signature strengths to good use. Write down the details, and share it with your loved one, partner, friend, or colleague. Then listen to their story. Ask questions along the way so the other person can soak up their strength. They’ll do the same for you.
- The Strengths Activity Exercise: This one works best for personal relationship building. Choose one of your five signature strengths and one of the other person’s signature strengths. Plan an activity involving each strength and see how it goes.
For example: If one of your signature strengths is creativity and one of your partner’s strengths is leadership you could throw a dinner party. As the creative, you could plan and cook the meal; the leader could handle all the logistics and planning.
Or, if one of your signature strengths is humor and your partner’s is kindness, you could do something that involves making people laugh.
If you’re both really feeling those positive emotions, it’s a good indicator that you’ve found a sweet spot where your strengths overlap. Keep finding, and trying, relationship building activities that work for both of you.
- The Strengths Conversation(s): Have frequent conversations with others about your strengths and how you’re using them in your relationship.
Getting better at relationship building is about effort
…but it’s worthy effort. Relationships with those around us—friends, partners, colleagues, family—sustain our happiness and give us a critical sense of connection in a world that honestly, kind of sucks at it. Let’s change the story, reap the rewards, and live a little (or a lot) better. We’re all in. Are you?
For more insight on relationship building and even more details on how to apply it to your love life, grab a copy of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build a Love That Lasts.
Your turn: What’s your top tip for relationship building? Let us know in the comments.
If you like this article you’ll also like The Science of Happiness: How to Focus on Friendship
Author: Bailey Reagan
Bailey is a community builder and positive psychology educator on a mission to help others design a life they give a damn about. She holds a Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology from The Flourishing Center. She’s still trying to figure out how these degrees will land her a gig as Macklemore’s back up dancer.