“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”
This touching quote probably evokes varied images for each of us. In this piece, we’re going to consider one of those little things that a team of relationship researchers investigated among married couples. It’s called “positivity resonance.”
What is positivity resonance? Dr. Barbara Frederickson, one of the researchers on the team, has described it as a brief time between individuals (for our purpose here, we’ll talk about it in terms of couples) when they both experience three things:
- “Shared positive emotion.” This refers to enjoyable emotions (e.g., happiness) that both partners feel together.
- “Mutual care.” This relates to the interest partners show for each other’s welfare through their words and tone of voice.
- “Biobehavioral synchrony.” This involves shifts for partners at the same time, both in terms of their biological responses and their body language and vocal sounds (e.g., bend toward each other and giggle).
The researchers explored the link between positivity resonance and the contentment partners feel with each other. The team reviewed video footage of partners discussing an issue they tend to have differences about, and determined each couple's level of positivity resonance every 30 seconds. The team couldn’t look at each partner’s biological responses, so they made an adjustment and called the third component “behavioral synchrony,” which referred to body language that happens in sync between partners (e.g., bend toward each other). They also looked at the pleasant and unpleasant emotions partners displayed, as well as how fulfilled each partner reported being in their relationship.
From this work, the researchers found that the more couples showed positivity resonance, the happier they were in their relationship. The study also revealed that positivity resonance was connected to more contentment in the relationship no matter how much partners seemed to experience enjoyable feelings. In other words, pleasant emotions alone weren’t driving the connection between positivity resonance and marital gratification.
Not only that, the study showed that the connection between positivity resonance and relationship well-being held regardless of the overall spirit of the conversation (e.g., unfriendly, warm). So even if you and your partner aren’t exactly feeling your best and are struggling to be as calm and open as you might wish, any spots in which you're able to be resonant with each other in the way we’re talking about still matter.
So can we say from this study that if you and your partner experience more positivity resonance you’ll have a happier relationship? No, because as the researchers rightly noted, the design of this study doesn’t make it possible to say that. However, they also shared their view that the relationship between these two elements is likely a two-way street, with each one impacting the other. That is to say, they believe happier couples are inclined to experience more positivity resonance, and added moments of positivity resonance are apt to help uplift a relationship.
But despite the fact that we can’t definitely say whether taking the time to cultivate these connected occasions with your partner will lead you to a stronger, more rewarding union, it certainly can’t hurt. At the very least, you’ll have more little-big moments to look back on. And in the end, you just may have a stronger, more delightful, and loving journey with your partner to recall.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2016). Love: Positivity resonance as a fresh, evidence- based perspective on an age-old topic. In L. F. Barrett, M. Lewis, & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions (pp. 847– 858). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Otero, M.C., Wells, J.L., Chen, K.H., Brown, C.L., Connelly, D.E., Levenson, R.W., & Fredrickson, B.L. (2020). Behavioral indices of positivity resonance associated with long-term marital satisfaction. Emotion, 20, 1225-1233.