By Diane Medved, Ph.D.
Got distress? It seems to be everywhere right now—the political scene is wild, the world is precarious, and too many relationships are teetering. But a counter-intuitive response might help.
In researching my new book Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing your Marriage, I found a critical factor that can determine whether we weather these challenges well or poorly: positive attitude.
This is true in every type of situation. A smiling politician, a major study showed, garners more support than a dour candidate. Greeting a friend with a happy countenance (and especially by name) cements the friendship. Similarly, exuding an upbeat outlook is a major attraction to a spouse, or potential mate. A UCLA study showed that the overall lifetime satisfaction of elderly women was determined most by whether they saw their glass as half empty or half full.
This isn’t news—the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peale‘s The Power of Positive Thinking was an enormous hit when it was published in 1952, and five million copies are currently in print. Since Dr. Peale’s bestseller, bounteous research has confirmed its value, and Dr. Martin Seligman built on it with an entire therapeutic approach, Positive Psychology. Presenting yourself with a pleasant demeanor is a Jewish commandment, or mitzvah, and at the synagogue my family regularly attends, congregants pull out their name tags at services every week as a sign they’re eager to connect.
The counter-intuitive part is the process that works to bring greater optimism into our daily encounters and our own perspectives moment-to-moment.
Popular “wisdom” insists that every emotion we express should be genuine. “Authenticity” is now a buzz-word that no one challenges: If you’re angry, express it; If you’re bored or uncomfortable in a marriage, leave. If you hate your job, find a different one. We ascribe legitimacy to our emotions simply because we have them. Certainly, every emotion deserves acknowledgement, but not necessarily honor. Some are counter-productive and destructive—and those can be revised through purposefully understanding and changing them rather than simply observing and accepting them.
In other words, it’s ok, and often best to behave in-authentically, to choose to act differently from your emotions. To “fake it till you make it,” with the goal of replacing dour habits with happier ones.
I suggest couples in trouble try an experiment to re-set their interactions. For a week, and preferably more, they can “win by letting go—” noting when they’d normally argue, and choosing to refrain. By announcing that you’re voluntarily restraining your feelings, you take a step toward actually changing them, and may surprise your partner into softening. The second tactic is to “behave as if you’re happily married,” reviving the loving gestures and speech of the time when you were most enthralled with your mate. If that’s tough, then emulate the actions of one whose marriage you admire, or simply focus on pleasing your partner in the moment.
Replacing a long-ingrained tendency toward the negative with a positive outlook isn’t “natural” or even easy, but with practice over time, and especially in partnership with another, is eminently possible. That may not affect the newspaper headlines, but with an attitude of gratitude and a mindful effort to elevate your approach, your own world can shine.