Today, I bought a new house for my girls and I. It’s a 1930s character home, needing a fair bit of renovation, but it’s a big deal for us. So after signing the paperwork, we celebrated!
I always thought I did a pretty good job of celebrating my family’s successes and high points. But, after learning about a positive psychology study recently, I’ve realised there is definitely room for improvement and some very good reasons to make the effort.
It turns out that celebrating is actually far more important for relationships than most of us realise, especially for our closest relationships.
Why is it important to celebrate well?
We all want three things: Attention, Acceptance and Approval. When we respond to good news well and celebrate with our friends, spouses, and children we offer them all three.
We pay them attention as we listen to their story without distractions and give them a hug or high five.
We show them acceptance and approval as we praise their efforts, tell them we knew they could do it, and go do something to celebrate.
Celebrating well has been shown to be one of the best ways to strengthen relationships. When we have strong relationships with our children they develop in more healthy ways, are more open to learning, can resist peer pressure more easily, have less conflict with you, and behave better. (Here are some other ways to have fun and build closer relationships with your kids)
Psychologist Shelley Gable was one of the leading researchers into the power of celebrating well. She defined the four different ways we respond to good news from our friends and loved ones.
The four responses
- Passive and Constructive
This is the typical way many of us respond to good news. Our child comes home and announces that they got an award at school, for example.
A passive and constructive response would be: “Well done! Good for you. That’s great news.”
That’s pretty nice, right? The problem is that it has absolutely no effect on your relationship — for better or worse. It’s completely neutral.
2. Passive and Destructive
I know I have been guilty of this response on occasion (Oops!). Sometimes we are distracted, busy, and in our own heads. Our child bursts in with their news and we say something like “Oh nice, mm-hmm. Can you empty your lunchbox, please?” Obviously, not the best for improving relationships.
3. Active and Destructive
Hopefully none of us are doing this, but it happens. Dismissive or demeaning comments that downplay or squash the excitement come into this category.
“Oh really? I’m quite surprised after how much you’ve been mucking around at school lately. Have you even finished that science project yet?”
You can imagine what that does to relationships!
4. Active and Constructive
This fourth response — the one that researchers say makes a big impact on relationships— is not complicated but it takes a bit more effort from us. We need to stop what we’re doing, clear away distractions and give all of our focused attention. (Not always the easiest thing to do!)
“Wow! I knew you could do it. We should go out and celebrate! Tell me what happened? What did they say?”
Steps to Active and Constructive Responses
To respond in this way we need to use our words and tone, non-verbal cues (body position, eye contact, body language etc) and actions.
What we say
- Match their enthusiasm.
- Ask questions that get them re-telling exactly what happened and how it felt.
- This re-telling helps them relive the excitement and feel valued because you’re wanting to share it with them.
- Make eye contact
- Turn towards them
- Stop what you’re doing
- Turning off distractions, like the television or your phone, helps too.
- Give a clear message: I am here to listen to your news.
- Do something to mark the occasion. It doesn’t have to be expensive. A special dinner, an ice-cream, a family game of soccer, letting them pick the movie…
- Doing something to celebrate makes the success/event more memorable.
- Doing something cements in their minds that you really value them and their achievements — it shows them how important they are to you! Remember that old saying: “Actions are more powerful than words.” Love really is a series of actions.
You can listen to Dr. Martin Seligman, the founding father of Positive Psychology at Penn University, talk about how to Actively and Constructively Respond here.
Seeing it in action
I taught this to my girls, Lula (13) and Little (9) and something exciting happened.
I was busy in the kitchen when Little came home from her theatre practice. She was excited because practice had gone really well and she could see that things were starting to pull together for the show.
I responded with “Wow! That’s great!” (completely forgetting what I’d learnt, of course.)
But Lula pulled me up — “Mum,” she said. “Isn’t this exciting!” She turned her full attention on to her sister and asked, “Tell us what happened.”
My 9 year olds face lit up; the full attention of her teenage sister! And that’s when I realised what was going on. I was watching perfect Active and Constructive Responding from my young teen.
“Let’s celebrate! Do you want to pick the movie to watch?” Lula asked. (A rare thing to hear in our house!) And off they went, arms around each other. Both very proud.
The teacher sometimes gets taught!
Celebrating vs Marriage Counselling
Celebrating good news may also be one of the most powerful ways to strengthen our marriages. Marriage counselling has its benefits but sometimes it just teaches couples to fight better. It makes an intolerable marriage a bit more tolerable perhaps, but does that make it a good marriage? Not in my experience.
Dr. Gable’s study suggests that celebrating well is far more likely to create good marriages. Celebrating well increases love, sex, and reduces divorce!
So, let’s do better for each other. Let’s lift up our families, our partners, and our friends. Let’s get excited about successes in our local communities. And here, in our online communities, let’s celebrate each other too. I have a new house and a fresh start, what’s happening for you? I’d love to celebrate with you!
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