The Strength Switch: Practice Acting On Your Child’s Strengths (Book Review)

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The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by Dr. Lea Waters, PhD, Professor and Founding Director of Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Melbourne.

What if you could make a small shift in your parenting style that would yield enormous results for your child… and for you?

If you’re like most people, you want to raise emotionally and intellectually healthy children. But today there’s so much pressure to have our children and grandchildren excel in EVERY aspect of their tender lives.

Dr. Lea Waters

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, parents can post every trophy and accomplishment on social media. Today’s children are the most documented generation of all time. Being bombarded with daily photo and video montages showcasing the accolades and adventures of other peoples’ seemingly perfect children tends to accentuate the tendency to focus on what’s wrong with our children and then try to fix it.

Lea Water’s break-through strength-based parenting approach changes that around. First it helps you see what is right about your children. Then it helps you nurture and cultivate their innate strengths and talents.

Sounds great. How do I do this?

Start with observation. If your daughter is really interested in music and loves to sing along with every song on the radio, perhaps you want to encourage her to join a chorus at her school, pick up an instrument, or start writing her own lyrics. If your son is likes to read more than he enjoys playing sports, perhaps you want to introduce him to some age-appropriate book series that pique his interests instead of pushing him to compete in sports that he does not enjoy.

Thus the strength-based parenting approach involves two simple steps: First see your child’s strengths. Then build upon them.

Dr. Waters notes three strength-based parenting styles:

Parents love to share strengths

  • Strengths Communicators: Parents who naturally use conversation with their kids to highlight strengths and talk about opportunities to use strengths for better outcomes.
  • Strengths Activators: Parents who coach their children to practice their strengths when hands-on opportunities arise.
  • Strengths Creators: Parents who are big-picture thinkers that can strategically create strengths-based opportunities for their kids.

Parents tend to use a blend of all three approaches with a dominant style based on the parent’s own strengths. To find your own dominant style, take the Strengths-Parenting Style Survey as part of Dr. Water’s online strength-based parenting course.

Use the Strengths Switch to Short-circuit Negative Thoughts

At the end of the day, chances are, your energy is depleted from hours of work, significant responsibilities, and caring for your children. When you’re hungry, angry, and tired it’s easy to become irritable. Dr. Waters offers the strength switch as a simple but powerful tool to help you shift from focusing on your children’s weaknesses to focusing on their strengths. The strength switch acts like a circuit breaker, which is defined by Wikipedia as an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current that typically results from an overload or short circuit. The circuit breaker interrupts current flow after a fault is detected.

Most of us can appreciate how negative thoughts and emotions can short-circuit our sense of balance. So thinking about this metaphor sounds good on paper, but how do you practice strength-based parenting in the moment when negative emotions start to overwhelm? Dr. Waters has a step-by-step guide for the strength switch briefly summarized here:

Where was the bike left out?

  • Observe your child’s action. For now, let’s assume your child did not put his bicycle away. It’s blocking the front door of your apartment so you have to move it in order to get inside your home.
  • Take a nanosecond to remember that just because you aren’t seeing your child’s strengths in that moment, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.
  • Pause for a moment: be mindful when the knee-jerk negative default feelings and thoughts start to take over. Taking a pause helps you get between your thoughts and feelings and a negative reaction.
  • Take a couple of deep breaths. Each time you breath out, you reduce stress hormones and calm your body.
  • Insert the thought, “The strengths are here, but they’re hiding. Let me switch over to find them.”
  • Take a few minutes to allow yourself to settle down. Perhaps you want to hang up your coat, or change out of your work clothes. Maybe you want to listen to your favorite song before speaking to your son.
  • Say what you mean, but not in a way that is mean. Children, especially very young ones, cannot distinguish subtle emotions such as irony or sarcasm. It’s best to say what you want in a neutral and loving way, not letting anger or frustration seep into your voice.

    Say something such as, “I see that you cleaned your room and made your bed this morning before you went to school. That’s great. I had a bit of trouble getting into the house today when I got home because your bike was blocking the door. When you come home from school tomorrow, I’d like you to remember to park your bike on the side of the house.

When we activate the strength switch, it can produce radically different results. Flipping the switch, we experience a sense of control by actively choosing where to put our selective attention. Where attention goes, energy flows. Imagine how liberating it is to choose to focus on the positive instead of harping on the negatives. Reinforcing your child’s strengths gives you both a powerful foundation of good will and trust. This fertile ground is a much better place to address areas that need fine-tuning.

Sharing smiles and encouragement, even in the midst of medical challenges








Practice the Strength Switch
Think of a situation from the past couple of weeks where your negative feelings escalated and you lost your cool with your child, causing both of you to feel crummy about the situation. In a couple of sentences write down what happened simply re-telling the facts.

Now close your eyes and breathe out and re-imagine the scene. See yourself taking a pause, and see yourself remembering that your child has strengths, even though you temporarily are focusing on something that is out of balance. Now, write down a new ending to this story where you flipped the strength switch and approached the situation from a place of love and patience, recognizing the good in the child before addressing the situation that needs an adjustment.

Reread your notes. See how taking a few moments to recalibrate your thoughts, feelings, and actions can make an enormous difference in the outcome: Happier parent. Happier child, motivated to remember to use her strengths in the future.

Click here, to explore the distinction Dr. Waters makes between strengths and learned behaviors.

The Healing Power of Love

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By Lisa Buksbaum for Positive Psychology News Daily

Words from the heart enter the heart.
~ Mishnah, Rabbinic Commentary on the Talmud. Berachot 6b

Today neuroscience can validate the accuracy of this adage by empirically measuring the impact of loving words, adoring gazes, caring thoughts, and the simple touch of a hand or shoulder. Small gestures can have profound, immediate, and positive impacts on our physiology, thoughts, and feelings. Dacher Keltner speaks about four great loves: the love between parent and child, the passion between sexual partners, the enduring devotion between pair-bonders, and the love for non-kin, most typically friends and fellow humans, but also including pets.

How Can You Resist A Baby?

Bonding to a newborn

According to British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, children come into the world biologically programmed to form attachment with others because this will help them survive. He posits that the first great love of life begins when we leave the womb. It includes a rich vocabulary of touch, voice, gaze, and facial displays and is evident in the merging of minds, heartbeats, and nervous systems of caretaker and young child.

These processes establish deep patterns of neural response in the pre-social nervous system: growth in tactile receptors in the skin, strengthening of the oxytocin system, setting the HPA axis to less stressful levels, and lighting up reward centers in the brain. For those of you who don’t happen to be brain surgeons, HPA is an abbreviation for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It describes a complex set of interactions among the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain and the adrenal glands in the body. Keltner likens the experiences of early love to feeling a warm hand on your back encouraging you as you move through life.

Not everyone forms warm and supportive attachments. Some experienced cycles of isolation or trauma as young children. Fortunately, through twelve-step programs, counseling, and determination, even people without secure attachment can become the empathetic, nurturing parents that they wished they had had.

The Thrill of It All

Anyone who has experienced a grade-school crush, high-school flirtation, or serious love relationship knows that powerful passionate feelings can short-circuit the brain. My first crush was directed towards Bruce Grunt, the new boy in town who sported wavy brown hair, big eyes, and a winning smile. What clinched Bruce as a fifth-grade heart-throb for me was that he reportedly played the drums just like Bobbie Sherman of the Monkees, one of top teen idols at the time.

Just engaged

Just as scientists have documented pervasive baby-parent bonding rituals, simple flirtation rituals echo the same auditory and physical bonding rites. Remember what it felt like to hear the other’s voice or see the other approaching? I remember my heart fluttering when I spotted my husband Jacob walking towards me on Manhattan’s West 86th Street when we were newlyweds. When we’d meet at our lobby, we’d both be grinning from ear to ear. Before proceeding to the elevator we’d share a hug, a universal gesture that places two individual bodies in a heart-to-heart stance. If positive psychologists had been perched in our lobby, they probably could have measured the expansion of our peripheral visions and the rise in our oxytocin levels.

All of these physical reactions demonstrate Barbara Fredrickson’s theory that experiencing positive emotions together actually opens us up to experience more positive sensations. Barb defines love as “micro-moments of connection,” and “positivity resonance.” I invite you to watch this Soaringwords’ video where Dr. Barbara Fredrickson shares findings from her riveting book, Love 2.0.

(Youtube link)

After the Thrill, the Bonding

There’s nothing like the thrill of the powerful choreography of touch.

Puppies tumbling

Just like puppies tumbling around with joy and abandon, everything seems playful and new at the beginning of a relationship. There are many exquisite touch receptors under the surface of the skin that are activated with a provocative brush of the arm, an emphatic pat of the shoulder, a butt bump after a shared joke. These harmless ways of upping the ante in flirtation allow two people to read each other’s reactions to see if they are in fact in synch.

When all goes well, a couple experiences behavioral synchrony with mirror neurons firing and mutual mimicking of expressions, laughter, and body language. The old definitions of self give way to an entirely new identity. The new identity emerging from pair bonding can realign our lives. Amplified devotion prepares us for commitment to monogamous bonding. All of these dance steps of behavioral synchrony reinforce perpetuation of our genes, which brings us right back into experiencing those powerful parent-child bonding emotions with our offspring.

Sharing SoaringSuperheroes®

Pay-it-Forward and Expand Your Love

The best way to experience more love is to be gratuitously kind to others without expecting anything in return. Doing something nice for someone else simply because you expect a positive return reduces love to the level of a business transaction. In contrast, paying-it-forward is expansive and generative. This is why for the past sixteen years Soaringwords has inspired thousands of hospitalized children and teens to engage in expressive arts projects to donate to other ill children because we know that this simple gesture accelerates transformative healing.

Beloved Pets

Atul Gawande describes an experiment by Dr. Bill Thomas at the Chase Memorial Nursing Home concerned with measuring how man’s best friend (and some cats, bunnies and parakeets) retarded illness and aging.

4-pound sidekick, Lulu

As a young audacious doctor Bill Thomas was put in charge of a nursing home facility. He was dismayed to discover that the residents were depressed, heavily medicated, and isolated as they spent most of their time in their bedrooms or sitting shoulder to shoulder parked in their wheelchairs near the nursing station watching a TV with the sound blasting. Dr. Thomas ordered 100 parakeets, four dogs, two cats, a colony of rabbits, and a flock of laying hens.

The first few days were mayhem as fur and feathers literally flew around the facility. Then patients who were non-ambulatory volunteered to walk the dogs and actually walked for the first time in months. Otherwise non-responsive residents started caressing and caring for the bunnies and cats. Drug costs for the facility fell 38% compared to a comparable facility, while deaths decreased by fifteen percent.

These people needed something to love.

Share the love

So this Valentine’s Day, whether you’re loving a baby, flirting madly with someone new, keeping the flames of love stoked with your mate, or giving to close relatives, cherished friends, strangers, or pets, remember that loving words, gazes, and gentle touch can elevate the giver and receiver to experience laughter, gratitude, and joy together. As Helen Keller aptly said,

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They simply must be felt with the heart.

Love is everywhere if you’re open to seeing it!



Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.

Buksbaum, L. (2013). Soaringwords empirical research to measure the well-being of hospitalized children. MAPP Capstone. University of Pennsylvania.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. New York: Penguin Group.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Gawande, A. (2017). Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Picador.

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J., & Rapson, R. (1994). Emotional Contagion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.


Happy National Hugging Day, You Probably Know What to Do Next.

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A few years ago, I embarked on a 250-mile road trip to meet Mata Amritanandamayi, affectionately known as Amma. She is a Hindu spiritual leader, revered as a saint by her followers. Amma’s name means “mother” in Hindi. There is nothing more maternal than a woman nestling a child in her arms, and Amma has amplified the simple, powerful, loving gesture of a hug to an astonishing level. According to the website, to date Amma has hugged more than 34 million people.

Born in India in 1953, she was the third of seven children. Her father was a poor fisherman. From a young age, Amma was sent to gather food scraps from neighbors for the family’s cows and goats. Each day as she rummaged through trash, she was confronted with the intense poverty and suffering of others. After hearing a particularly dire story, she would bring the person food and clothing from her own home. When her family learned about her altruistic actions they scolded her.

At the same time, Amma began to spontaneously embrace people to comfort them in their sorrow. Her physical contact with other people, especially men, was considered unacceptable, and her parents insisted that she stop immediately. Instead, word of her kindness and wisdom spread rapidly through the region, and people started traveling great distances to her village to meet her. Often there would be dozens of people sleeping on the ground near her humble home waiting for a chance to speak to this fourteen-year-old girl.

“People used to come and tell me their troubles. They would cry and I would wipe their tears. When they fell weeping into my lap, I used to hug them. Then the next person wanted it too, and so the habit picked up,” she told a Rediff interviewer.

My Own Experience with Hugs

For many years, I have traveled around the country running Soaringwords’ programs for thousands of employee volunteers at end of sales meetings or corporate retreats. My Soaringwords talk is followed by a hands-on team-building activity doing something simple and kind to benefit ill children. Evaluations show that these are often the emotional highlight of the meeting because of the powerful feelings evoked.

Soaringwords programs often culminate in hospital visits with small employee delegations donating their Soaringwords projects to babies, children, and teens. After going room-to-room, reading the special messages and artwork on the quilts and pillows, we thank the children for allowing us the privilege of visiting. Then comes my favorite part, what makes me want to get up the next day and do it all again. As I leave the hospital room I always asked the child, teen, or family member:

“Would you like a hug?”

There is a momentary pause that feels like everything is moving in slow motion. I wait. I have no expectations. Sometimes a person looks at me and says “No thanks.” I smile and say something like, “It’s been such a pleasure to meet you.”

Most of the time after I ask, the person pauses and starts to smile or nod silently. I take a step forward, waiting. When it’s the right time, the hug happens. Some of the hugs are immediate and strong. Other hugs are slow and tentative. A few seconds elapse, then come the tears. Tears of joy. Tears of release. Or just tears of being “seen.”

Amma giving a hug

Meeting a Master

This is why I was compelled to drive for four hours to meet someone who had already hugged more than 34 million people. I knew that I would come away inspired. In Hinduism, darshan is the act of beholding a deity, divine person, sacred object or natural wonder, especially in a physical form. I was ready to see this paragon of loving kindness in person.

Dorothy, I think we’re not in Kansas Anymore

I set out with Greta, Soaringwords’ Community Relations Manager, to experience the power of Amma’s love and perhaps even receive a hug for ourselves. The road trip coincided with Greta’s birthday so we dubbed it a Soaringwords Adventure & Birthday Boondoggle. We knew we were far from New York City when we stopped at a gas station just a few miles from the retreat center. As we pulled in, we noticed a couple dressed like they were attending Woodstock, dancing and chanting on a well-worn patch of grass abutting the gas station.

When they saw us leaving our car to stretch our legs and use the facilities, the man approached us with a broad grin.

“Greetings holy sisters.” His eyes were joyful, his shoulders slightly drooping like a friendly basset hound.

“Well hello there, looks like you two are celebrating this beautiful day.”

“Indeed. Are you coming to meet Amma?”

“Why yes, we are.”

“I’ve seen her 25 times, here and in India.”

“Wow, we are Amma virgins. It’s our first time.”

“You won’t be disappointed. It will change your life.”

Greta with Carrots

A few minutes later we pulled up to a large parking lot, a patch of dirt in front of a tired building that looked like it might have been a dance hall, bowling alley or warehouse decades earlier. Several greeters were on hand at the registration station which had hundreds of envelopes perched on a folding table. We received our room assignment, schedule of meditation sittings, and assigned duties. We had kitchen duty at 5:00 AM the next day. Greta and I peeled potatoes and chopped carrots for hundreds of people. It was meaningful to contribute, although Greta noted that it felt like being in an I Love Lucy episode as we tried to cut vegetables in precisely instructed shapes and sizes.

Our room was immaculate and wonderfully barren: two beds, a lopsided dresser, and a couple of pegs to hang our worldly possessions or wet towels. A single light bulb suspended from the ceiling by a bent wire illuminated the space between the beds. According to the printed program schedule, our days started at dawn and did not have an official end time. We realized that we were in for a whole lot of sitting in silence for hours at a stretch. We closed the door to our room and took a short hike prior to the opening session asanas, times to sit in meditation.

She looks Holy

Botero Sculpture

Amma reminded me of iconic portraits of Indian Goddesses like Radha, the life energy and goddess of kindness, or the Great Tara, the supreme creatrix and mother of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Amma looked like a grandmother, and also a little bit like a Botero sculpture. I immediately wanted to hug her.

Like many things that are authentic and true, eighteen hours later, when I had my chance, it was nothing like I had imagined, and it was wonderful. Greta and I each received a small orange ticket, with a number printed on it. At the appointed time, organizers invited people to start assembling in a line that wrapped around the circumference of the entire hall. As I walked up the stairs to the stage where Amma sat on a golden chair, we locked eyes. Her gaze was penetrating and soulful. I stared into her eyes, feeling in the presence of a holy person. I smiled softly as tears streamed down my face. Suddenly she leaned into my face and cupped her thick hand close to my ear creating a megaphone of flesh and bone. Then she started screaming directly into my ear: “Mother, Mother, Mother.” She kept screaming for about five minutes. I was reduced to tears feeling the pull of her love, my mother’s love, and the love I have for my children and all the children I have ever encountered through Soaringwords. My time was finished. I was gently lifted by two organizers, and the next person knelt down to meet Amma.

So don’t just sit there. Go find someone to hug!

January 21 is National Hug Day in the United States. Not an official holiday, National Hug Day was created by Reverend Kevin Zaborney because he perceived that many Americans were afraid to display affection in public. He chose this time of year because it’s often a low point for human contact between the December holidays and Valentine’s Day. But you do not need to wait for a special holiday to give a hug.



Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26, 135-147. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614559284. Abstract.

The Rediff Interview/ Mata Amritanandmayi

Killam, K. (2015, March 17). A hug a day keeps the doctor awayScientific American.

Inagaki, T. K. & Eisenberger, N. I (2012). Neural correlates of giving support to a loved one.Psychosomatic Medicine, 74(1), 3-7. Abstract.

Photo Credit
: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
A hug from Amma courtesy of vaniAmrita
Another hug from Amma courtesy of vaniAmrita
Greta with carrots courtesy of Soaringwords.
Botero sculture courtesy of Maurits Verbiest

Practicing Happy Together Can Be A Snap For Aristotelian Lovers

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                        Practicing Yoga Together: An image from the Romance and Research™ workshop

If you’re like most people who are interested in deepening your relationships, then you probably ordered your copy of Happy Together published yesterday (Jan. 16, 2018) to coincide with the 8th anniversary of authors, Suzann and James Pawelski, a positive psychology power couple.

Today I want to highlight two compelling Happy Together concepts that can help you cultivate stronger and happier relationships.

SNAP! Practice, Practice, Practice!

Developing good habits in our relationships is like building any other good habits: it takes regular practice. James Pawelski’s hero is the philosopher William James, someone we could all consider a positive psychology pioneer. Reinforcing the message that good habits are a foundation for strong, positive relationships, James Pawelski uses the acronym, SNAP, to help us remember the four rules stated by William James for cultivating good habits:

    • Start strong. The more highly motivated we are to start a new habit, the more likely we are to be successful. One way to increase motivation is to make a public announcement of the habit we want to build. Calling for witnesses makes it easier for our friends to support us and harder for us to back down.
    • No exceptions. We may think that once we have acted in accordance with the new behavior for a few days, we can give ourselves a break, but this is likely to take us back to square one. Slips do happen, but if the general rule is no exceptions, it becomes easier to get back on track.
    • Always act. Whenever we have an urge to act in accordance with the new habit, we should follow that urge, no matter how annoying it may seem. This reminds us of the fundamental way that children learn by following the actions of their parents, not simply listening to their words.
    • Practice exercising the will. James suggests doing something hard every day, for no reason but that it is hard. Doing so, he says, can strengthen the will, making it ready for our use when we need it.

Forget Ann Landers. What Can Aristotle Teach Us About Building Love That Lasts?

Back in your school days, you probably learned about Aristotle, a towering figure in Greek philosophy and science, student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle is another early contributor to positive psychology, contemplating questions such as “What makes people human?” “What makes life meaningful?” and “How can we enhance well-being within people and between people?”

Aristotle in the library

You have probably heard the term Platonic friendship used to describe a close relationship that is not sexual. Aristotle cultivated his own philosophy on friendship that James Pawelski calls Aristotelian Friendship based on the notion that the highest kind of friendship is one where people are drawn together by the recognition of the good in each other and the desire to support it. James used the idea of Aristotelian Friends (AF) in MAPP to encourage people to practice supporting each other as they grow and cultivate strengths. Aristotelian friends value the other person’s character and want to help it develop in healthy directions. The good that AFs see in the other person may also inspire them to want to become better themselves. In an Aristotelian friendship, each person is focused on the other person. AFs love each other for who they are, not just for the profit or pleasure they can get out of the relationship. Aristotle contends that friendship based on goodness is the truest kind, superior to the other two. Although Aristotelian friendships are not motivated by the quest for profit or pleasure, Aristotle noted that they often do turn out to be useful and pleasurable, as well as good.

After getting married, Suzie asked James a provocative question that elevated and transformed their marriage. “Why do Aristotle’s observations need to be limited to just friendships? What if we apply his philosophy to romantic relationships, as well? What if we see ourselves not just as lovers, but as Aristotelian lovers, focusing on appreciating the good in the other person and supporting each other’s growth and development?”

Being a wise philosopher and positive psychology practitioner, James embraced this idea wholeheartedly. (Spouses take note, when your partner makes a brilliant suggestion, follow their lead).

This concept of Aristotelian Lovers led Suzie and James to create Happy Together.

Loving gesture

Getting Started: Look at What You are Already Doing Well

There are so many small gestures to show love in a mature marriage. I like to tuck a card in my husband’s suitcase before he goes on a business trip, knowing he will discover the card and feel loved and supported. That creates positive emotion. When either one of us comes home from a business trip, there’s a large sign on the door with clever allusions to the destination city or conference woven into the message. We both use our character strengths of creativity and humor to make the signs. When we do something together, there’s a lot of mutual savoring before, during, and after.

Welcome back to the hive

At nighttime, before going to sleep, I make lunch for Jacob to bring to the office, not expecting something in return. When Jacob proofreads my blog posts or pulls articles from the Wall Street Journal that he knows I would want to read, he is not expecting to be paid back. On a deeper level, when I was mourning the death of my father, Jacob gave me plenty of room to experience my feelings. One way he showed steadfast support was to draw a warm bath and light a candle for me to relax each night after a long day.

Welcome home, Lisa

When we are with others of good character, it motivates us to improve our own character. Suzie and James Pawelski remind us of Jonathan Haidt’s wisdom about elevation, an “other-praising” emotion that causes “warm, open feelings in the chest” and inspires people to behave more virtuously themselves. When we are uplifted or elevated, our hearts are opened and our thoughts are more focused on others than on ourselves. We seek ways to make positive changes to enhance our relationships, and we experience moral growth and heightened positive emotions.

There are many many benefits from practicing being Happy Together.



Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcerPerigee.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Photo Credits:

Suzie and James doing yoga together used with permission from Suzann Pileggi Pawelski.
Welcome back posters used with permission from Lisa Buksbaum

The following image is from Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Aristotle in the library courtesy of Rachel Sample
Loving gesture courtesy of Simon Cocks

Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts

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Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts
by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski & James O. Pawelski

In ancient times, people congregated around campfires, town-squares, and stages to be mesmerized by morality plays, fairy-tales, fables, and legends.

Stories by a campfire

These stories had captivating characters with exaggerated personalities so that the audience could easily distinguish between right and wrong. Many stories culminated with “Happily Ever After.”

Today, as sophisticated moderns, we know that happily-ever-after only happens in fairy tales. Or do we?

Consider the iconic line from the movie Jerry McGuire, when the lead character says to Dorothy, “You complete me.” This kind of Hollywood romance reinforces the perception that the lustful exuberance experienced during the “falling in love” stage of a relationship should last forever. Smiling picture-perfect couples and families on social platforms can make it appear that everyone else is enjoying fantastic relationships, 24/7.

Based on these powerful movie and social-media messages, it’s no wonder that our notions of romantic love might be skewed so that we believe that happily-ever-after is the norm, even if it is not our experience. That can lead people to feel that their own relationships are subpar.

Suzie and James Pawelski wedding day
“Baiada Photography©2010”

Happy Together debunks flimsy notions of romantic love, showing that successful couples work on being happy together. Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James O. Pawelski connect their own experiences to scientific research in order to demonstrate that becoming happy, apart or together, is an on-going process of cultivating healthy habits. It takes time.

Suzie is a journalist fascinated by the science that underpins human behavior. She serves as a well-being consultant specializing on the impact of happiness on relationships and health. James is a philosopher, professor, and cofounder of the Penn Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program with Martin Seligman. Suzie and James met at the MAPP program.

Who Can Benefit?

After Suzie wrote the cover story of the January 2010 issue of Scientific American MindThe Happy Couple, the flurry of interest inspired the couple to create the Romance and Research™ workshops. The workshop debuted at the 2014 European Conference on Positive Psychology (ECPP) in Amsterdam.

Like hundreds attending that conference, I was packed in a standing-room-only crowd. From feedback afterward, the Pawelskis concluded that people gravitated to the topic for three different but all compelling reasons:

  • They have a rewarding loving relationship already. They want effective new ways to make the relationship even stronger
  • They feel stuck in their current relationships. They want ways to repair or rebuild positive relationships without having to start over with new partners.
  • They want to enter a romantic relationship. They want ways to make it happy, healthy, and fulfilling.

I’ve added a fourth group based on my experiences connecting with ill children and families for sixteen years.

  • They belong to families grappling with serious illness. Key relationships may be strained because so much attention is focused on medical challenges, whether their relationships were thriving or strained prior to the illness. They want ways to choose to focus on what is working well and to come together with love, compassion, and solidarity in order to make each day more bearable.

James and Suzann Pawelski

Whatever camp you fall into, reading Happy Together is like going to a relationship boot camp led by two skillful, funny, and authentic trainers.

Going to a Relationship Gym

Imagine reading a fitness magazine and expecting to lose four pounds simply by skimming the recommended exercise drills without doing any physical work. It’s just not going to happen, even in the movies!

The Pawelskis aptly use Relationship Gym as a metaphor to help readers realize that in order to enjoy a successful, happy relationship, both partners need to do the exercises in order to build strong love that lasts. Going to a single Pilates class is not going to make you fit overnight. It takes practice over time. Just so can you become stronger and more confident in your relationship repertoire.

I remember starting a Pilates class. I felt muscles in my abdomen, thighs, and calves that I did not know I had. Over the next few weeks the intricate moves became more familiar to me as my muscles got stronger and my confidence blossomed. In a few months, I had internalized the moves so that I was able to do the exercises at home without having my teacher shouting instructions. Relationship exercises can become second nature in a similar fashion.

Just as most gyms have more than one exercise machine to tone and build different parts of our bodies, the Happy Together Relationship Gym focuses on four areas to strengthen core components of our relationships.

Lisa on 3rd grade field trip

  • Harmonious Passion: If you’ve ever really clicked with someone, a new teacher, friend, or romantic partner, then perhaps you’ve experienced the heady feeling of harmonious passion, overwhelmed with positive emotions that make your heart sing. I was inspired by Bertha Davidson, my third-grade teacher to feel this way about expressive arts. She arranged field trips to New York City from my elementary school in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. We visited art museums. We put on plays and wrote sketches. She taught us how to listen to classical and jazz music. This formative relationship sparked a life-long passion to create art, to dance, to sing, and to learn how to play the guitar. These are harmonious passions that I enjoy to this day.
    In my honeymoon years whenever I saw my husband Jacob walking up the block towards our apartment, my heart would flutter. That’s hormones combined with a bit of harmonious passion. All good. After thirty-two years, I still feel warm inside when we reunite at the end of the day. Robert Vallerand’s research shows that it’s important to cultivate harmonious passion. However obsessive passion can actually be damaging and worse than not having any passion at all.

  • Positive emotions have ongoing positive consequences in our lives, making us open up, like a plant stretching towards sunlight. Barbara Fredrickson calls this the Broaden and Build Theory: positive emotions broaden our sense of what is possible and build positive qualities. They cause good things to happen.
    Experiencing positive emotions together builds up a strong foundation of good will, understanding, and connection that helps successful relationships bounce back from misunderstanding, hurt feelings, or life’s inevitable setbacks. As relationships mature, it’s important to cultivate positive emotions in yourself and toward your partner so that you continue to experience joy and excitement together. The book has a hearty array of delectable positive emotions and a sampling menu of Happy Together exercises you can do to experience more positive emotions.

Lisa savors her wedding day

  • Savoring helps us make the most of positive emotions and good experiences. It’s so easy to take positive experiences for granted, enjoying them briefly and then getting on with our busy lives. Research on savoring shows us the value of intentionally opening ourselves as fully as we can to the positive moments while they are happening, of remembering positive moments from our past, and of anticipating positive moments in the future.
    Think about the best vacation you ever took: Did you take time to thoughtfully plan the trip? Do you remember how you enjoyed the time? I remember the dreamy smell of the salt-water spray as I walked along a turquoise ocean holding hands with my partner, the laughs as our children discovered sand crabs burrowing into the sand. They spent hours slinging them into brightly colored plastic pails. Have you found yourself smiling as you looked at photos from this holiday? Do you have a photo in a prominent place where you can enjoy looking at it? If you answer YES to any of these questions, then you know what it means to savor. The Pawelskis show you more ways to savor together.

  • Character is a key part of who we are and how we relate to others. Many books and articles talk about the importance of knowing and cultivating our own particular character strengths. The Pawelskis remind us that knowing the strengths of our loved ones and sharing our strengths with them can help us avoid some of the frictions and frustrations that tend to arise from differences in our personalities. Strengths awareness can help make the relationship itself greater than the sum of its parts.
    Recognizing, acknowledging, and celebrating strengths in action is a sure-fire way to avoid relationship burn-out. The best part is, it doesn’t cost anything. Once you build this habit into a relationship, it fuels harmonious passion, savoring, and oodles of positive emotions.

As the calendar bends towards Valentine’s Day, Happy Together is a wonderful book for you and the important people in your life. It provides a dazzling array of easy-to-implement exercises to keep your relationships strong and energetic. The Pawelskis demonstrate that relationships can also get better with age, like fine bottles of wine.

Speaking of aging well, the launch date of Happy Together (January 16) coincides with the Pawelskis’ eighth wedding anniversary. Mazel tov!

Read part 2 Practicing Happy Together Can Be A Snap For Aristotelian Lovers



Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcerPerigee.

Happy Together book site. Includes Meet the Authors and Learn and Share with additional resources.

Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Talking with Larry King about “Why the Grass Seems Greener”. Appears on the Happy Together channel on Psychology Today.

Pileggi, S. (2010). The happy coupleScientific American Online.

Britton, K. H. (2011). What about passion? Positive Psychology News.

Britton, K. H. (2010). Two Bits of Wisdom about Long-Term Relationships. Positive Psychology News.

Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.

Polly, S. & Britton, K. H. (Eds.) (2015). Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Positive Psychology News.

Vallerand, R. (2015). The Psychology of Passion: A Dualistic Model (Series in Positive Psychology). Oxford University Press.

The Wonder of Wonder

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What lies behind us
And what lies before us
Are simple matters
Compared to what lies within us.
– Anais Nin


One of my father’s favorite words was WONDROUS, an odd descriptor that he uttered whenever he thought something was awe-inspiring, heart throbbing, breathtaking.

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I cannot ever recall hearing anyone else say this word. That’s probably why I thought it was a bit peculiar and perhaps a little embarrassing.

Decades later, I discovered that the word WONDROUS actually appears in the weekly Torah reading when miraculous things happen, such as the parting of the Red Sea allows the Israelite slaves to escape the wrath of Pharaoh’s Army. It made me happy to realize that this lofty emotion used to describe a miraculous occurrence was a sentiment that my father experienced, articulated, and shared with his family routinely.

Lisa and Gary and the wonder puppy

Today thinking about the word WONDROUS evokes a memory: both of my parents’ warm gazes as they took turns tucking my brother Gary and me into bed. They tenderly kissed us on the cheeks, lovingly stroked our hair, and wished us pleasant dreams. Only decades later as the parent of Jonathan and Joshua can I completely understand how WONDROUS it is to love a child.

Wonder, the book

I remember devouring the book WONDER in one sitting when it was first published in 2012. It’s a brilliant, poignant tale that captures the strong parental bonds that we can feel towards our children coupled with the realization that we cannot protect them from the viciousness of the world, especially when that world is the brutal stomping ground of elementary school.


The story is a pitch-perfect depiction of the landmines of kindness or cruelty, never knowing which emotion will be triggered until you step on it, that confront differently-abled children and adults each day. August Pullman called Auggie is the ten-year-old hero of the story. He has already undergone 28 reconstructive surgeries to re-build his face by the time he begins fifth grade. Auggie has incredible parents, a devoted older sister, and a dog that licks his face whenever he walks in the door.

The problems happen when Auggie leaves the security of home and has to face the stares and whispers of classmates and strangers. In the first week of school, another boy starts a rumor that classmates can contract the plague if they touch something that Auggie touches. One mother actually airbrushed Auggie’s face out of the class photo because she could not bear to see his face amidst the sea of smiling fifth grade faces.

My Own Experience

Re-reading WONDER reminded me of real-world middle school excursions into the world of bullying towards differently-abled children, specifically my only sibling and younger brother Gary. His childhood asthma often made it difficult for him to breathe, especially in the fall and spring. This illness precluded him from participating in gym class and recess. When you’re a boy in middle school, missing gym and recess is an enormous calamity. To make matters worse, while others got to play, Gary had to sit in the school office or library.

One afternoon walking home from school, a couple of bullies pounced on my brother. They punched him and yelled “asthma-spaz” over and over. The attack triggered my protective big-sister adrenaline. I dropped my book bag and jumped on the assailants, flailing my arms, pulling, scratching, and screaming, “Get off him! Get off him!” Hearing the screams, a woman ran out of her house and threatened to call the police, motivating the attackers to flee. We walked home bloodied and stunned. The next day my brother had a brand-new nickname, “Honig’s Baby Sister,” scribbled on his locker. I learned from this experience that I could not save him from bullies or from the vagaries of his condition.

One Person’s Kindness

One of the best parts of reading Wonder happens on Auggie’s first day of school when one kind girl named Summer leaves her lunchroom table of friends to sit with the new kid that everyone else is ostracizing. Summer’s loyal friendship helps Auggie decide not to drop out of middle school to be home schooled by his mother. At first, her simple courageous gesture causes her to be ostracized, but then it becomes the catalyst for other children to realize that Auggie is likable and funny, interesting and strong. One at a time more children join his circle of friends. In a pivotal scene towards the end of the book, a bunch of thugs viciously attack Auggie and one of his friends in a forest in the middle of the night. Tremors went up and down my body as I remembered the punches and taunts that pummeled my brother Gary on that sunny day just a block from school and several blocks from my home.

Several years later in the Summer of 1983, I was strolling on the streets of Greenwich Village in New York City with Paul Steven Miller, my close friend from college. He had just graduated, and we were having a celebratory lunch before he moved to Cambridge to start Harvard Law School. As we left the restaurant, a bunch of men congregated on the sidewalk and started pointing at Paul who stood four feet two inches tall. The original Star Wars movie had come out, and they were calling him R2-D2 and laughing like a bunch of fourth graders. We ignored the taunts but the attack still wounded us.

Paul Steven Miller

Years later, Paul was nominated by two U.S. Presidents to become the Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He went on to become the architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to protect differently-abled people from prejudice and discrimination. Nonetheless, this giant in the field of human and disability rights was still a target for mean spirited people. Decades later, when the Austin Powers movies debuted, people pointed at him and shouted, “Hey Mini-Me, How Ya’ Doing?” and then burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Paul is one of the many outstanding people profiled in my upcoming book: SOARING into Strength: The New Science Approach to Help You Heal.


What We Do Matters

One of the most poignant stories about WONDER is a real-life incident that motivated the book to be written and the movie to be produced. The author was getting ice-cream cones with her young children when they saw a girl with facial deformities in front of them on line at the ice-cream shop. The author’s children gasped and pointed at the girl, “Look Mommy!” She feared that they would say something age-appropriate and uncensored, so she immediately pivoted the stroller and bolted out of the ice-cream shop. Feelings of guilt and horror plagued her because her children’s innocent reaction to someone so physically unique had made that other child suffer. For years as she saw the little girl’s eyes staring at her children realizing that this was the reality that confronted that child every day. She wrote WONDER from the vantage point of a child who looks different on the outside but who is ordinary and WONDERFUL on the inside to help teach adults and children empathy and tolerance.

Principal at 5th grade graduation

Like Auggie, the wounds my brother and Paul suffered from their attackers healed on the outside, but invisible scars remain. I found myself sobbing on the beach as I read the Fifth-grade commencement scene in Wonder. School Director Mr. Tushman bestows a special award, The Beecher Medal of Honor, for a student who has been exemplary throughout the school year. Announcing the winner, he says,

“Not just the nature of kindness, but the nature of one’s kindness. The power of one’s friendship. The test of one’s character. The strength of one’s courage. Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion to greatness. And this is what the Henry Ward Beecher medal is about: recognizing greatness.
But how do we do that? How do we measure something like greatness? Again, there’s no yardstick for that kind of thing. How do we even define it? Well, Beecher actually had an answer for that. Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength. He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own. So will August Pullman please come up to the stage to receive this award.”