The Art and Science of Celebrating the Good Times
It's not just about being there for people when they're down. Up counts too.
Posted Oct 29, 2018
What if a stranger came up to you and asked, “What does it mean to you to be there for someone, to be supportive and really back that person?” And because it would probably seem rather peculiar for a perfect stranger to approach you and ask a question like this, let’s add a few details. Imagine this person is doing a survey, they’re kind and genuinely interested in what you have to say, and you’ve got the time and the inclination to give a thoughtful, sincere answer. Most likely, you’ll describe support largely in terms of helping, giving comfort, and caring for someone when they’re in a rough spot in life — and with good reason. Arguably, plenty of us tend to think of being there for someone as holding them up on the shores of life when heavy, burdensome waves come crashing down. But what about giving someone a leg up in the good times? It’s natural to forget the importance of these moments, and yet they’re every bit as valuable in a relationship as assisting someone during life’s inevitable setbacks.
Sharing the Bright Spots
When it comes to the jolly stuff of life, we humans love talking about it, even if it’s with just one other person. On anywhere from 60-80 percent of our days, we mention a positive moment to someone else. Just think about a time when something really cool happened, you got wonderful news, or you simply experienced a pleasant point in your day. If you’re like most folks, one of your first thoughts was something along the lines of, “I can’t wait to tell ____________!” (Fill in the name of your spouse, a close relative, or a dear friend here.) And in all likelihood, you shared your news with a person you believed would celebrate your happy tidings with you, someone who would be delighted with and for you. When that happens, you’re doing something called capitalization, which is when people share joyful news and pleasant moments, even small ones, with others. But like so many facets of human interaction, the impact isn’t a one-way street. Capitalization is connected to meaningful benefits for both individuals and the relationship they share. Let’s turn here next.
The Perks of Capitalizing
Capitalization allows us to relish the feelings that arise from a wonderful, significant turn of events or simply an amusing moment. For example, have you ever told someone about a funny incident that happened, and that person was laughing and really amused by the story? Not only am I going to take the liberty of assuming this has happened to you, I’ll go one step further and wager that you were in high spirits and laughing too, almost as if you were reliving the experience all over again. If that’s correct, you enjoyed one of the gifts of sharing fun, happy news. Similarly, capitalization enhances how much meaning and weightiness we attach to those uplifting moments in our lives, and this is even more so when the person we’re telling is engaged and earnestly happy for us. Moreover, the positivity of capitalizing seems to extend to other facets of life, such as work. When people let their partner in on rewarding moments that happened at work, they’re more content with their job that day. But let’s not overlook the person on the receiving end of pleasant information. In one study, individuals learned to not only catch times when someone shared good news or uplifting moments with them, but also to react in an interested, animated way. And when they put what they learned into practice, they felt happier, particularly if they did it more often and responded in an honest, real way.
Capitalization is connected to stronger, closer relationships in a host of ways. For those who reach out and share happy moments, capitalizing is linked to relationship wellness, bonding, and safety. And when they sense that the person they’re telling is receptive and engaged, they feel happier in the relationship, along with heightened fondness, gratitude, and dedication. A sincere, excited response can also elevate our confidence in the individual we’re opening up to, along with our desire to be considerate and helpful toward that person. Likewise, when we know our loved one is capable of rejoicing with us and being there for us amid the happy news of life, we’re also more likely to see them as a steadfast source of comfort in times of stress.
On the flip side, what about people who are on the receiving end of someone’s good news or happy moment? After folks in one study received information on how to convey emotional engagement when their loved one capitalizes and how valuable it is to do that, they saw their loved one as being more appreciative and content in the relationship.
And there’s a link between relationship benefits and the interchange that happens as partners share and react to favorable news. Such an exchange could help couples store positivity, connection, and goodwill in their relationship bank account that they can draw from in times of difficulty, such as during periods of relationship distress. In a similar vein, it's connected to greater feelings of closeness, even when the couple is facing a significant stressor in life.
Bringing More Capitalization Into Your Relationships
Regardless of whether or not it's easy for you to share life’s large and small treasures, it’s possible to do something different. Likewise, no matter whether it’s second nature for you to detect those bright spots in someone’s life and authentically rejoice in them, or it’s unfamiliar territory, it’s possible to learn to catch someone when they capitalize with you. Capitalization is essentially the polar opposite of schadenfreude, and it deserves far more attention than we give it. Besides, we arguably have more to gain from savoring another’s good fortune than reveling in someone’s ill luck.
So how might you start building more capitalization into your relationships? Let’s consider a few ideas:
1. Start small.
If you’re not usually someone who shares good news or pleasant moments, dip your toe into the water with something that feels relatively minor for you. It could be an amusing conversation, a show, movie, or podcast you enjoyed, a lovely scene in nature, a delicious meal you had, something funny your pet did, or a new local place you visited.
On the flip side, if the thought of gleefully exulting in someone’s glad tidings compels you to roll your eyes, start at a place that feels like a bit of a stretch, but still rings true. For instance, rather than conveying animated excitement, you might genuinely smile and show interest by saying something like, “That’s wonderful news. Tell me all about it.”
2. Give what you'd want to get.
When it comes to how we share good news, scientific research isn’t entirely clear on what’s ineffective. But some researchers have ideas about what approaches could backfire, and they seem relevant to the Golden Rule: If we wouldn’t appreciate being on the receiving end of it, it might not go over so well with other people either. So if we want to get a sense of how our news might land with someone, we can consider how we’d react if we were the one hearing it, and then make adjustments where we need to.
For instance, let’s say that you and your friend work at a company where a number of employees are being laid off, and somehow you both know that only one of you will be allowed to stay on. (I have no idea how you’d have this knowledge, but let’s just go with it!) Now imagine that your friend learns that the company selected him to remain, which also means you’ll be out of a job. If he came up to you grinning with joy and telling you how relieved he felt, how would you feel? Odds are, you wouldn’t exactly be in the mood to celebrate with him, and may find his reaction a bit (or more than a bit) insensitive.
Here’s another example of how capitalization could flop. Picture a friend who tells you about an award she won and proceeds to gloat about her superior talent and skill. It might strike you as arrogant and leave a bitter taste in your mouth, whereas you may feel naturally excited for her if she conveyed more modesty and gratitude for having won.
So if you want to share happy news and are unsure when, where, how, and with whom to do it, consider how you’d feel if you heard the same news, delivered in an identical manner in a similar circumstance. If you’d feel sincerely elated for the other person, go for it. Conversely, if you’d have a half-hearted or icy reaction, consider what would need to be different for you to feel warm and animated, such as changing the tone, the phrasing, the setting, the timing, or the person you’d tell. And then give your new, revised way a try.
A similar point applies to sorting out how to give an interested, enthusiastic response to a person who’s capitalizing with you. Envision what kind of response you’d truly like to get if you shared happy news with someone. Would you want that person to express excitement and ask follow-up questions? What words of support would you hope to hear? What facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice would leave you feeling glad you told them? Would you want them to stay on topic and talk about the plus sides of your news? Imagine it, and give that response to the person who’s letting you in on their happiness. Of course, depending on the context, the kind of response you might want would probably vary, so it doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all reaction. The main idea is to give someone else the responsiveness you’d want.
3. Take an active-constructive approach.
If we want to lump our options for responding to someone’s cheerful news into discrete buckets, we essentially have four main selections to choose from. What simplifies the choice is that only one of these alternatives is good for our relationships. It’s called an active-constructive response, and it’s basically the kind of engaged, thoughtful, authentic, and lively reaction we’ve been talking about. For example, let’s say you come home and share with your partner the wonderful news that you actually got the dream job you applied for. In response, your partner’s jaw drops as they elatedly smile and hug you, and then they say something along the lines of: “What? That’s amazing! Congratulations! I knew you could do it! Okay, forget dinner in, we’re going out to celebrate!”
You’ll rarely go astray with this approach. On the contrary, the other three options have the potential to undercut your efforts to be supportive and may dampen your connection.
- A passive-constructive response: If you were to use this approach, you’d react to good news in a very muted, low-key, minimizing way. If we stick with the example of the dream job offer, your partner would react mildly with, “Good for you, that’s great.”
- A passive-destructive response: This reaction essentially involves passing over happy news and brushing it off. In this scenario, your partner would react by saying something like, "Nice, hey what’s for dinner?"
- An active-destructive response: This response puts a damper on cheerful tidings by highlighting the drawbacks, inconveniences, or obstacles involved. Again, let’s go back to your moment of jubilation after getting the job offer you always wanted. Here your partner might respond by saying, “Uh-oh, here it comes. You thought you had pressure and job stress to deal with before. You’re playing at a whole new level now. What if you’re not able to cut it there? Would your old job take you back?”
And if right about now your mind is highlighting moments when you’ve used any or all of those less-effective responses, I hope you’ll make an extra effort to be understanding with yourself. Everyone trips at times when it’s their turn to be responsive, and that’s okay. Thankfully, in relationships we almost always have an opportunity to do a course correction and set things right the next time. So as you remember occasions when you’ve dropped the responsiveness ball, try treating them as potholes you’ll want to steer clear of in the future, rather than as reasons to be hard on yourself. After all, past mistakes furnish some of the most invaluable lessons in relationships, and we can make use of them to create a more worthwhile future for ourselves, the people we care about, and the relationships we cherish.
Thank you for taking time to read this piece. I wish you and your loved ones every success as you practice the art of capitalizing on the gems of life. Happy celebrating, everyone!
Conoley, C. W., Vasquez, E., Bello, B. D. C., Oromendia, M. F., & Jeske, D. R. (2015). Celebrating the accomplishments of others: Mutual benefits of capitalization. The Counseling Psychologist, 43, 734-751.
Gable, S. L., Gosnell, C. L., Maisel, N. C., & Strachman, A. (2012). Safely testing the alarm: Close others' responses to personal positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 963-981.
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87, 228-245.
Hershenberg, R., Mavandadi, S., Baddeley, J., & Libet, J. (2016). Capitalization in distressed couples: A pilot study and outline for future research. Personal Relationships, 23, 684-697.
Ilies, R., Keeney, J., & Scott, B. A. (2011). Work–family interpersonal capitalization: Sharing positive work events at home. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 114, 115-126.
Langston, C. (1994). Capitalizing on and coping with daily-life events: Expressive responses to positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1112-1125.
Logan, J. M., & Cobb, R. J. (2013). Trajectories of relationship satisfaction: Independent contributions of capitalization and support perceptions. Personal Relationships, 20, 277-293.
Otto, A. K., Laurenceau, J. P., Siegel, S. D., & Belcher, A. J. (2015). Capitalizing on everyday positive events uniquely predicts daily intimacy and well-being in couples coping with breast cancer. Journal of Family Psychology, 29, 69-79.
Peters, B.J., Reis, H.T., & Gable, S.L. (2018). Making the good even better: A review and theoretical model of interpersonal capitalization. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 12(7), e12407.
Reis, H.T., Smith, S.M., Carmichael, C.L., Caprariello, P.A., Tsai, F.F., Rodrigues, A., & Maniaci, M.R. (2010). Are you happy for me? How sharing positive events with others provides personal and interpersonal benefits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 311-329.
Woods, S., Lambert, N., Brown, P., Fincham, F., & May, R. (2015). “I’m so excited for you!” How an enthusiastic responding intervention enhances close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 24-40.