Book Review: Happy Together

I have often wished there was a resource I could recommend that would offer couples genuine hope, with practical steps on how to strengthen and grow their love. Happily Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts by Suzann and James Pawelski is that book. Grounded in the latest research from positive psychology and relationship science, it is also written by two highly qualified people.

Suzann is a freelance writer specializing in the science of happiness and its effects on relationships and health. Her Scientific American Mind cover story in 2010, “The Happy Couple: Secrets to a Long Marriage” was a catalyst for the book. James is professor of practice and director of education at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also cofounder of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program with Martin Seligman (who wrote the book’s foreword).

Though the book is researched-based, it is highly accessible; written from the heart and from experience. Happy Together reflects the Pawelski’s philosophy and approach to the care and nurturance of love by offering exercises for couples to put research into action. It tells readers what is not only possible, but likely, if they follow the recommendations.

The Pawelski’s draw on the considerable research and practices surrounding positive emotions, passion, expressing gratitude, and the cultivation of each other’s character strengths. This is no small task, because it required a review of hundreds of studies and practices to distill them into a successful and usable format for couples. The clear explanations and exercises make it easy for couples to grasp the concepts, and immediately put them into action.

For the past seven years, I have published nearly 1700 responses for the Ask the Therapist blog here at PsychCentral.com. The vast majority of the questions have to do with relationships. Concerns about lost love, infidelity, unworthiness, confusion, disappointment, betrayal, limitations, distractions, lack of passion, and the inability to commit fill the inbox.

What is always a surprise is how couples get off track. What happens to their initial love that keeps it from maturing? Classic couple work, such as Harville Hendrix’s Getting The Love You Wantsees the correction between a couple as a matter of healing past emotional reactions, largely influenced by attachment theory. While this approach is certainly of tremendous value, it reflects only a component of the work a couple needs to do to nurture and sustain love.

Another element, about what couples can do to thrive and sustain their love has been the focus of many of John Gottman’s books, including The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,What Makes Love Last,The Relationship Cure, and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Both Hendrix and Gottman’s work have become classic because they use research and clinical experience to inform the way toward sustainably loving relationships.

The authors add something that is much needed to the formula. By combining new research with experiences from their Romance and Research™ workshops, they contribute greatly to the understanding of a happy couple. They do not replace what has come before them, but add a significant and novel piece of the puzzle.

Understanding the need for and practice of positive emotions such as gratitude (largely based on the work of Barbara Fredrickson) and kindness (from the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky) adds a foundation to couple work that had not previously been fully articulated. Robert Vallerand’s research on passion has only been compiled into a book within the last 3 years, and there are many intriguing activities that lead to highly useful and practical suggestions. The Pawelskis skillfully guide the reader on how to take the best of what we know from the laboratory into our intimate lives. They also have a companion website that invites readers to learn more through available resources and share their stories.

The section on character strengths, a foundational component in positive psychology, teaches couples an essential strategy to directly improve their personal lives while cultivating the strengths of their partner. It shows how our differences can be celebrated to strengthen our connection with each other.

Happy Together lends itself to couples directly reading and experimenting with the recommendations. Couple therapists will find this an easy book to recommend because of its ready-made exercises, positivity, and engaging application of the research. Coaches helping to enhance romantic relationships will also find the topics and approach easy to add to their wheelhouse.

There is much wisdom to be learned from positive psychology’s first couple, James and Suzann Pawelski. With solid research and beautifully designed exercises, the authors show not only what makes for a good relationship, but how to continually strengthen and nurture each other. Every couple can find something here to improve their relationship. It is a new and invaluable resource to help love grow and flourish. You can read the first 10 pages for free here from their website.

Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts
Suzanne Pileggi Pawelski MAPP and James O. Pawelski, PhD
TarcherPerigee
January 2018
Paperback, 272 pages

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