Individuals want to feel good and have good relationships with others. Yet, the scientific community has primarily focused on negative emotions and problematic social relationships. In my lab, I set sail in the opposing direction. I am from a smaller group of researchers who comprehensively study the positive.

Positive emotions are cute but quite a nuisance when you try to put them under the lab microscope. Negative emotions are easier to dissect and understand. They help us survive—escape, fight, destroy. Positive emotions require a closer look. But once harnessed, positive emotions are the rocket fuel that helps you not just survive but soar higher and flourish—do more and better for yourself and others.

I have been studying positive emotions using psychophysiological methods for almost two decades. My research is—literally and figuratively—blood and sweat. Blood—because I study changes in blood circulation. And sweat—because I study finger sweating. These and many other changes in your body tell about your emotional state. Apart from that, I study actual interpersonal behavior—an aspect of human functioning that is paradoxically less frequent in social psychology than self-reports.

Recently, we examined how individuals respond to their partner's success in two large studies.

Participants came to the study with romantic partners. They completed some tasks and then shared success information with their loved ones: "I did it! I won a couple of bucks!" Scientists call this capitalizing on good events.

Capitalization also serves to relive and consolidate positive emotions. Positive emotions are frequent in life but so fleeting that they need every possible enhancement. And is there anything more enhancing for us, hypersocial Homo sapiens, than positive feedback from other people?

Yet, there's a catch. This hypersociality works in both directions. It does not take much for us to feel hurt, rejected, or invalidated by other people. Thus, whether we succeed or fail in capitalizing on good events depends on our partner's response. Sometimes we receive no more than unsolicited advice, criticism, doubt, irony, or mean-spirited jokes. Thankfully, sometimes other people express curiosity about the event, present authentic appreciation, and genuinely care for us and our positive experience.

Let's focus on our partner. What determines whether the partner responds positively or negatively? We know that people generally differ from one another. But their responses across time and situations are relatively stable—in other words, people have personality traits. Is it possible that whether partners respond with invalidation or enthusiasm goes beyond their personality and reflects circumstances that we create? If this is the case, if we can control the circumstances, we might be able to influence our partner's behavior! It was definitely worth a look!

The Rocket Fuel of Positive Emotions

Let's say person A succeeds at a task, and that person's partner (person B) could respond. Perhaps instilling positive emotions in person B will give them the emotional momentum to respond better to person A. We studied 112 romantic couples—one member (person A) succeeded at tasks and the partner (person B) watched film clips (eliciting amusement, anger, or neutral). In response to person A's success, person B sent a text message with their selfies and their written response. We found that when person B had watched amusing film clips, they sent more constructive texts and smiled more in the selfies than those who had watched other clips. This means that the amusement spilled over into the communication with person A.

So, based on this work, how about putting your partner in a good mood before announcing your achievements? You undoubtedly know many ways to make your partner smile.

Modeling Positivity for the Partner

In another laboratory study with 163 romantic couples, we took things one step further. Can person A show their partner, by their own example, how to respond when person A communicates accomplishments? If person A shows a good (or bad) example, will person B reciprocate that same kind of behavior? The answer is yes: Positive modeling produced a 6 percent increase in enthusiastic responses. In comparison, negative modeling decreased enthusiastic reactions by 20 percent. Tit-for-tat! Eye for an eye but also kiss for a kiss.

This shows two things! First, it is vital to control your ways of responding to partners' successes. What you give is what you'll get in return. Second, you can help improve your partner's way of responding to your accomplishments by being a positive role model.

In summary, our recent studies show that positive interactions and positive emotions come together, and that these things are malleable. Malleable, but also perhaps fragile. Well, you need to be careful when playing with rocket fuel.


For Further Reading

Kaczmarek, L. D., Kelso, K. C., Behnke, M., Kashdan, T. B., Dziekan, M., Matuła, E., ... & Guzik, P. (2021). Give and take: The role of reciprocity in capitalization. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2021.1885054

Kaczmarek, L. D., Kashdan, T. B., Behnke, M., Dziekan, M., Matuła, E., Kosakowski, M., ... & Guzik, P. (2022). Positive emotions boost enthusiastic responsiveness to capitalization attempts. Dissecting self-report, physiology, and behavior. Journal of Happiness Studies, 23(1), 81-99. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-021-00389-y


Lukasz Kaczmarek (http://www.lukaszkaczmarek.info/ ) is an associate professor of psychology at Adam Mickiewicz University (Poland), Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science. His research focuses on the function and structure of positive emotions in various contexts, including dyadic interactions and video gaming.