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By Martin E. P. Seligman
September 2003

The Positive Psychology Network runs a Summer Institute for the younger scientists: new assistant professors, post-docs, and advanced graduate students. This year, the third annual one, held for a week at a lovely country inn in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware, was the most exciting yet. Over one hundred scholars applied, but we only had funds for accepting about fifteen. The talks, by both faculty and students, were superb, but the most important one that I heard was given by Shelly Gable, who, along with Jon Haidt, ran this year’s Institute.

A New Approach to Marriage Research

Shelly, who is an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, works on the positive psychology of love and marriage. Most psychologists who research marriage work on conflict and incompatibility. Most marital therapists, in parallel, try to transform intolerable marriages into tolerable ones, or failing that try to mediate a harmonious divorce. A crucial issue in psychology-as-usual marriage research and therapy is how one member of a couple responds when the mate criticizes or how you both "cope" when something bad happens and things start to fall apart.

Shelly Gable turns all this on its head. She is one of the few who work on what makes a marriage great, and her work holds a crucial lesson for all of us who want to transform a good relationship—marriage, parent, or friendship—into an excellent one.


She asks how do you respond when your mate tells you that she’s just been promoted, or your teenager tells you that the most beautiful girl in his class just accepted a date with him, or when your father tells you that he just made a hole-in-one, or when your best friend tells you that she just had an article accepted by the Psychological Review? Shelly divides the possible responses into the following four categories:

  • Do you "react enthusiastically" (active-constructive)? "That’s the best news I’ve heard this week, and I’ll bet its just the first of many big raises you’ll get."
  • Do you "point out the potential problems or down sides of the good event" (active-destructive)? "Are you sure you can handle the added responsibility?"
  • Do you "say little, but convey that you are happy to hear the news" (passive-constructive)? "That’s very nice, my dear."
  • Do you "seem uninterested" (passive-destructive)? "Isn’t all this rain something?"

She calls the first category "Capitalizing," amplifying the pleasure of the good situation and contributing to an upward spiral of positive emotion. Capitalizing turns out to be the key to strong relationships.

How would your mate, child, or best friend characterize your habitual responses to their good news?


  • My partner usually reacts to my good fortune enthusiastically.
  • I sometimes get the sense that my partner is even more happy and excited than I am.
  • My partner often asks a lot of questions and shows genuine concern about the good event.


  • My partner tries not to make a big deal out of it, but is happy for me.
  • My partner is usually silently supportive of the good things that occur to me.
  • My partner says little, but I know he/she is happy for me.


  • My partner often finds a problem with it.
  • My partner reminds me that most good things have their bad aspects as well.
  • He/she points out the potential down sides of the good event.


  • Sometimes I get the impression that he/she doesn’t care much.
  • My partner doesn’t pay much attention to me.
  • My partner often seems uninterested.

Being Active/Constructive Pays Off

The consequences of being "active/constructive" as opposed to any of the others are robust and important. Couples who report an active/constructive mate are more in love, more committed, and have more marital satisfaction, both at the time of the measures, and later on. So important do I deem these skills that I will be teaching about them in the Authentic Happiness telephone Coaching course.

Nikki just walked into the room while was writing this paragraph and said, "I just found the greatest anniversary present for Mom: A chair that massages from head to toe." Mindful of what I am writing I said, "That’s just a perfect gift, Nikki. You are so thoughtful, and that is why we love you so much. Let’s go look at it together this evening."

© Copyright 2003 Martin E. P. Seligman. All rights reserved.