By Lorrie Peniston
Habits are routines and rituals that provide an important framework in our lives; they can be productive or counterproductive. The routines that exist in life around waking up, getting ready for work or for sleep are acquired patterns of behavior which are consistent and often automatic. Your brain likes habits because it minimizes the amount of thought energy needed to complete a task. Changing habits and developing new pathways is difficult—hence why many resolutions are unsuccessful.
The habits you attempt to create or eliminate are often about behaviors related to yourself. How often have you resolved to create a habit having to do with another person? Practicing new, positive behaviors toward or with another person may create habits that improve both your relationships and your life.
In Positive Psychology, a positive psychology intervention (PPI) is an empirically tested and proven exercise and practice intended to increase well-being by cultivating strengths, positive emotions and/or meaning. Simply stated, PPIs are a way to redirect attention and memory (Rashid, 2009). By habitually engaging in these positive activities, the prospects of experiencing happiness are enhanced. Participants can adopt behaviors and habits that are “good” for them (Gable & Haidt, 2005).
Relationship Habits that Count is a collection of PPIs designed to establish new, positive patterns of behavior in your significant relationship. These habits can be easily remembered by the numbers associated with them.
1. Tell or show your partner at least ONE time a day that you love them. Love your partner in the way that they want to be loved. Often, you love your partner in ways that you assume he/she will like. It is important to ascertain how your significant other wants to be loved (e.g. with words, kisses, notes or making a coffee for them in the morning) and express it that way at least one time a day.
2. Share good news with your partner (Capitalization) and respond actively and constructively (ACR) to your partner’s good news at least TWO times a day. Sharing good news with others is sometimes difficult because of the negativity bias (the tendency for your brain to be attuned to bad news). Capitalization is the process whereby news is shared when good things happen (Langston, 1994). Gable, Gonzaga and Strachman (2006) found there are four ways to respond when someone shares good news: three ways erode the relationship and only one way (ACR) benefits the relationship and the individual by increasing levels of happiness, satisfaction, trust, intimacy and lessens conflict. ACR is the process whereby you, as the listener to the good news, show authentic interest by asking questions that help your partner to relive and elaborate on the news.
3. Gratefully acknowledge your partner, your relationship or a shared experience THREE times every day. Regularly reflecting on the things for which you are grateful increases subjective well-being (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). The good things acknowledged can be the sublime or the simple (e.g. “thanks for taking the time to do that,” “it’s great when you come home early to be with me,” “you are an amazing husband/wife,” or “we make a great team”).
4. Make a verbal or non-verbal acknowledgement of your partner at the FOUR major junctures during the day. For cohabitating couples, the four “transitional” times of the day are connection opportunities. These times are when you each wake from sleep, before departing from one another, when you rejoin each other and the last thing before retiring for sleep. A gesture (touch, eye contact, kiss, etc.) or phrase need not be profound, but is a simple validation of the other at these key points during the day.
5. Think positively about your partner FIVE times a day. Take time to remember the things that you value about your partner, the things that you are grateful for about your partner, a pleasant experience with your partner, or something you look forward to doing with your partner. Use prompts (an electronic alarm or linking it to a daily event like meals or commute times) to remember to “savor” your significant other.
6. Hug your partner every day for SIX seconds. Embraces can raise oxytocin levels. Oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” is a substance which is released in the brain in response to social contact and touch. Oxytocin has been linked to a loving bond between individuals (Insel, 1997), so this six second daily hug may physiologically increase the attachment between you and your partner.
Initiating all of these PPIs at once may be too lofty a goal. Set yourself up for success: choose one of these “habits that count” and put forth persistent effort to practice it as suggested for one month. The next month, choose another PPI to implement.
Whether or when you choose to share this initiative with your partner is up to you. Doing so may serve to create a shared relationship goal and increase the efficacy of the interventions via mutual motivation, accountability and synergy.
Like brushing your teeth, implementing positive relationship habits will keep your connections bright and healthy. You don’t have to wait until the New Year to work on habits. Resolve to improve the quality of your relationship today.
Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G. C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 904-917.
Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology.Special Issue: Positive Psychology, 9(2), 103-110.
Insel, T. R. (1997). A neurobiological basis of social attachment. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(6), 726-735.
Rashid, T. (2009). Positive interventions in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 461-466.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.