Martin Seligman, who studies the science of happiness, states that positive psychology is interested in how to turn a good relationship into an excellent one, not just how to turn an insufferable relationship to a barely tolerable one. One way of strengthening your relationships is celebrating your partner’s achievements by responding actively and constructively.
In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Seligman notes that Shelly Gable, professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has shown that how you celebrate is more predictive of a strong relationship than how you fight. When people share with you a victory, or any positive experiences they have had, how you respond can either strengthen the relationship or undermine it. Research shows that when you respond actively (showing interest and asking questions) and constructively (building up the other’s points), it can significantly enhance the quality of your relationship. When your partner shares a positive event, an active and constructive way of responding would include both verbal and non-verbal cues.
Imagine your partner comes home and says: “I just received a big promotion at work!”
A verbal active and constructive response would be: “That is excellent! I am so proud of you. You’ve worked so hard for this. Tell me all about it. Where were you when your boss told you this? What did she say? How did you react? We must celebrate this great news!”
Non-verbal cues: Maintaining eye contact, sincere enthusiasm, displays of positive emotions, such as genuine smiling, touching, laughing.
Shelly Gable came up with three other possible ways to respond to good news that are not as enhancing to the relationship or conversation, and might even be destructive:
Passive and constructive: “That’s good news, you deserve it” (non-verbal: low energy, little emotional reaction, delayed response)
Active and destructive: “I’m not sure you can handle all the work that this will add on. I’ll probably see you a lot less too…” (non-verbal: dismissive attitude, displays of negative emotions, i.e., furrowed brow, frowning)
Passive and destructive: “Did you take the trash out?” (non-verbal: turning away, little eye contact, ignoring the speaker)
Active and constructive responding may take some time to get used to. See if you can practice it a few times each day with your partner, colleagues, children, or friends. Notice if there are any differences in your conversations with others, and how you can continue to incorporate this style of communication into your relationships.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.