What do Aristotle and the field of positive psychology have to say about modern-day relationships? According to a new book from husband-and-wife team James Pawelski, a philosopher and professor of practice in Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, and science writer Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, more than you might think.
“Aristotle claims we humans love three basic kinds of things: those that are useful, those that are pleasurable, and those that are good,” Pawelski says. “And he points to a type of friendship that corresponds to each love.”
Useful friendships spring up between acquaintances like business partners and are born of necessity and convenience. Pleasurable friendships are based on the enjoyment that comes from spending time together. The third type—and in Aristotle’s philosophy the most mature and desirable—is friendship based on goodness.
“We see the good character in someone and it makes us want to be around that person,” Pawelski says. “It can also inspire us to want to become better ourselves.”
In their new book, “Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts,” Pawelski and Pileggi Pawelski take a twist on this third type of friendship, seeing it through the lens of a committed, loving relationship. With that as a framework, they apply the main tenets of positive psychology to create a roadmap for a healthy, strong, and satisfying relationship.
“There is much more focus in our culture today on getting together rather than on being together, and on continuing to be happy together,” says Pileggi Pawelski, a Penn alumna who earned her bachelor’s degree in communications and master’s degree in positive psychology. “What happens after the happily-ever-after? A wedding day is magical, but what about all the days and years to come?”
Here Pawelski and Pileggi Pawelski offer five tips for partners in all stages of a relationship, from those just starting out to married couples many years in:
• Shape a healthy passion, not an obsession. In the beginning stages of a normal relationship, partners often feel a strong desire for one another. As time progresses, however, such passion and preoccupation can be a sign of obsession and result in loss of individuality.
“We don’t actually want someone who can’t breathe if they’re not with us,” Pawelski says. In a healthy relationship, these feelings morph into a deep love that allows each person to maintain friendships and hobbies and an overall sense of identity. “If you feel like you’ve lost yourself—and often it’s friends who first notice—it’s important to recall those interests and activities you were involved with before your relationship,” he adds. “That can help balance you out.”
• Prioritize positivity. Positive psychology contends that positive emotions can help people flourish, but “we can’t just wait for them to happen,” Pileggi Pawelski says. “Couples that are the happiest actively nurture these emotions.” Doing so takes practice and requires grasping that these sentiments fall on a continuum, from those of high arousal like passion, amusement, and joy (often experienced at the start of a relationship) to calmer emotions like serenity, gratitude, and inspiration. If cultivating these feels unnatural, she suggests “prioritizing positivity,” which means scheduling the types of activities into your day that naturally lead to experiencing these emotions.
• Savor the good, reframe the bad. “Positive emotions tend to exist in spades at the beginning of a relationship,” Pawelski says. “But we eventually have to go to work, get the car fixed—real life kicks in.” When that happens, he adds, we can wind up harping on the problems, the aspects of our partners that come to bother or annoy us. Instead, he recommends reintroducing balance by consciously focusing on the shared positive moments and experiences—past, present, and future—and intentionally shifting away from the negative. Doing so can “lengthen and strengthen” healthy emotions.