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Practicing Happiness Together: Positive Psychology Exercises for Couples Under Stress

As there is in psychology, there are any number of books and resources available for couples to help them determine what exactly isn’t working in their relationships.  While this can be useful, and might even be critical, the new and burgeoning field of Positive Psychology might offer a different strategy.  Positive Psychology as such is a relatively innovative field in which leading scholars in the field of psychology have taken it upon themselves to inventory happiness.  That is, they’ve decided to give as much attention to what makes and keeps people happy and thriving as traditional psychology has given to what makes them miserable. 

Dr. Martin Seligman, a leader in the movement and past president of the American Psychological Association, now spends his career giving people evidence-based tools to improve their pleasure, satisfaction, meaning and sense of flow in their lives.  He and his colleagues generate not only data about happiness, but practical, do-able strategies that people can use to become happier  right now.

 For couples in trouble, having these practices may mean having an immediate life-raft for their sinking relationships.  Though couples may be willing, undertaking the process of couples’ counseling may mean facing costs and challenges that are a little overwhelming.  True or not, there is a prevalent idea that counseling may offer long-term benefits, but little relief or satisfaction in the moment.  Even short-term, results oriented therapy may mean feeling a lot more difficult feelings in the short-term, meanwhile deferring the happiness and relief that everyone in this crises wants.  Couples in crisis may not need a process that intensifies negative emotion, no matter what the end.

As an alternative or a supplement to therapy, Dr. Seligman offers some practices for couples that are designed to increase their happiness, comfort and satisfaction with each other.  One joy in discovering these exercises is that they are based on scientific studies.  Skeptical people can assure themselves that these strategies are not just “touchy-feely” games someone made up, but are statistically proven to create lasting effects of positive emotion, satisfaction and relaxation.  Those are effects any struggling relationship is probably aching for.  They are grounded in cutting-edge research from Positive Psychology, and promise both long- and short-term relief.  Having an aching relationship is the same as having an aching tooth: you want your mouth and dental health straightened out, of course, but right in the moment you just want it to stop hurting.

Needless to say, these practices require commitment from both members of a relationship, but that commitment should not be too daunting.  They don’t require anyone to learn a new set of behaviors, unearth painful memories or tackle an addiction right this moment.  Instead, they ask for a commitment of time to add something to the relationship.

Dr. Seligman suggests keeping a record of in a journal or log of certain key features from these exercises.  Couples may do this separately or together.  They’re asked to document briefly what was going on in their lives and what their moods were before and after the exercises' completion.

The first exercise is called “Doing Pleasurable, Important, and Meaningful Activities together.” Dr. Seligman suggests doing them for two weeks, as follows:

“(1) Choose a pleasurable activity to do together and do it to completion. Example: Playing games together, exercising together, dancing, attending movies, going out to dinner, doing something creative as a team, gardening together--whatever you both enjoy.

(2) Choose an activity you both deem important or meaningful and do it to completion. Example: Balancing joint accounts, doing household chores, facing tough issues and working them through to mutual satisfaction, solving a problem together, or contributing to the betterment of the world around you.

(3) Later record what occurred in your life during and at the conclusion of the activities. What were the activities effects on your mood? Notice what good things took place during and after the activities completion. Record what happened in a journal or log.

(4) Notice how your choices and actions made these good, important, meaningful and pleasurable activities happen.

(5) Do 2 new pleasurable, meaningful, or important activities each day for two weeks before switching to another … Positive Psychology Couples Exercise.”

One of the key descriptors for these practices is that they re-direct attention.  The preceding exercises re-directed attention from each partner as an individual to the experience of themselves as a unit.  It also may have encouraged applying analytical skills to the relationship that they may not have applied before … or, if they have, may have only been applied in parsing out blame or exquisitely noticing each other’s negative behaviors. 

The next set of exercises takes couples into the realm of character-building.  Here they are challenged to change their behavior a little, but probably not in such a way as to stress them.

These come from the book Character Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

This set of practices is called “Building Character.”

“For two weeks pick two activities per day from the list below. Choose two new activities every day. Make sure the activities you both choose are mutually agreed upon.

The Activity List:

  1. Do a joint creative activity like writing, art, craft making, inventing, or solving problems together.
  2. Learn something entirely new for both of you that you both find either pleasurable or meaningful.
  3. Explore something new. Maybe visiting a new place or examining new ideas and philosophies together.
  4. Master a new skill or area of knowledge together. 
  5. Examine an issue or viewpoint from several different perspectives. Discuss it with your partner and try on different and expanded viewpoints. 
  6. Give a point of view to your partner. Have them give a point of view to you. Discuss it, find some truth in it, and discover its positive aspects. 
  7. Act with honesty. Each tell your partner the truth about a part of yourself you previously didn't accept. 
  8. Carry out an important goal together in the face of emotional blocks or opposition from others. 
  9. Act with courage in the face of fear or pain. You both may face different areas of fear or pain. 
  10. Both of you take up separate courses of action and take them to completion. Or take up an activity together until completion. 
  11. Experience energy and passion in going after a joint goal or vision you both agree upon. 
  12. Both of you do a good deed for someone else or a group. 
  13. Demonstrate your love and acceptance for each other in a new way. 
  14. Become aware of your partner's emotions, intentions, and motives. Ask them if this is what they feel, intend, or are motivated by. 
  15. Both perform an important act for your community. 
  16. Treat each other as you would care to be treated. Inquire first about how your partner would prefer to be treated under certain conditions. 
  17. Jointly organize and lead an important group activity. 
  18. Act with self-control. Both of you choose to do something other than to behave in an impulsive manner. 
  19. Jointly or separately forgive another for some wrong they did. Or forgive each other. 
  20. You and your partner act in a modest way. Let what both did speak for itself. 
  21. Both of you carefully arrive at a joint decision and hold off saying something you might later regret. 
  22. Both of you regulate your emotional responses and what you do. 
  23. Together take note of something beautiful or outstanding. 
  24. Both of you actively demonstrate appreciation and gratitude to each other and others for good things that happen. 
  25. Jointly take up a spiritual discipline and practice it together… [inner exploration, meditating, etc.] 
  26. Together find something humorous and enjoy a good laugh. Tell stories and jokes that amuse each other or others. 
  27. Expect good things to happen and together go about doing things that will get those good things to happen. 
  28. Both of you tune into your intuition and do what it prompts both of you to do.

Using journaling to record the effects of doing the exercises -- and any insights that may result -- ensures that couples will have more than an ephemeral experience of learning to cultivate character and satisfaction.  Rather than letting positive experiences flow away under the category of, “Well, yes, that happened, but we don’t know why or how -- we felt good for a while, and now we don’t,“  the journals give couples a road back to re-creating positive moments in their relationships any time they want or need them.

They also may serve as warnings of what doesn’t work.

The last set of practices given here are especially helpful in reducing stress and creating the positive effects of calmness and adaptability.  They are titled “Admiration, Fondness, Accepting Influence, Cooperation, & Calming.”

“For two weeks pick two activities per day from the list below. Choose two new activities every day. Make sure the activities you both choose are mutually agreed upon.

  1. Together take 20 minutes to tell each other about those things you most admire about each other. Write each quality down.
  2. Together take 20 minutes to recall fond memories of shared times together or picture a future together of shared times together. Write each memory or picture of the future down. 
  3. Take 20 minutes together to recall times you accepted influence from each other and noticed a positive outcome from this influence. Write each recollection down, and its positive outcome. 
  4. Take 20 minutes together to recall times you cooperated together and noticed a positive outcome from this cooperation. Write each recollection of cooperation down and its positive outcome.
  5. Together take 20 minutes and recall times you soothed each other or helped calm each other down. What was that like in the end? Write each memory down and its positive outcome. 
  6. Together take 20 minutes and recall times you practiced emotional restraint with each other and didn't fly off the handle. 
  7. Together take 20 minutes to accept something about your partner you previously judged in a negative way. 
  8. Together take 20 minutes to consider what you wanted to change in your partner, and then do some self-work instead on your behavior, thoughts, or feelings. 
  9. Together take 20 minutes to think about creating a pleasant atmosphere for both of you and then do what you need to do to create that pleasant atmosphere.

It may be evident in reading these exercises that they consist of many things happy couples do automatically and spontaneously.  Sometimes one or the other member of a couple in crisis may assert, or argue, that being happy together shouldn’t be so hard .. That it  should  be spontaneous. One response to that is to direct that person to any member of a happy,long-term working relationship for their perspective on this.  Doubtless he or she will get the feedback that when infatuation turns to long-term commitment, consciousness is being applied even if it wasn’t before.  However, conscious behavior doesn’t have to be stressful or grating -- it is what upholds commitment over time, and if it were only hard work, it probably wouldn’t last. 

A couple who practices Dr. Seligman’s relationship exercises will probably find them joyful and satisfying in many ways.  Ultimately, they ask each member of a relationship to be willing to experience satisfaction and pleasure both next to and in congruence with the other partner.  For most couples who want to stay together, that should be a welcome exploration.

A final note:  Discovering through initiating these exercises that your partner is not interested in or does not see the value in exploring happiness may also be valuable information indeed.   

 

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