Couple pushes ‘positive psychology’ to make life, marriage stronger

James (right) and Suzann Pawelski were married on January 16, 2010. 8 years later, they published their first book - Happy Together (photo credit Tony Baiada)
James (right) and Suzann Pawelski were married on January 16, 2010. 8 years later, they published their first book - Happy Together (photo credit Tony Baiada)

Most people instinctively know that the fairy tale type of “happily ever after” is more fantasy than fact. The truth is, building healthy relationships that last is never easy. But James Pawelski and his wife, Suzann, have learned there is a science behind happy relationships.

James was born in Ohio, graduated from Dayton Christian High School and went on to college in Cedarville. Growing up in a faith-based home with his minister father had him learning about giving back from an early age. But he also learned about people, living around the world and the country.

“I wound up getting my Ph.D. in philosophy from Penn State,” James said. “And it was there that I got involved in a new field at the time – positive psychology.”

Positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes life most worth living, is only about 20 years old as a field. The Positive Psychology Center was founded at the University of Pennsylvania on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.

“Mainstream psychology focuses on what is wrong with people and how to fix it,” James said. “But positive psychology focuses on what is right and how to cultivate it. That’s also important.”

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James was invited to the University of Pennsylvania about 14 years ago to help develop a master of applied positive psychology program. And knowing that human relationships are the cornerstone of wellbeing, it was important to look at how these are built and maintained.

He met his wife, Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, when she came to Penn to enroll in the then-new program. Though she said she had never planned to go to graduate school, she ended up leaving a thriving career in public relations in New York City after she was involved in a car accident.

“I was hit head-on by a drunk driver,” Suzann said. “While I was recovering, I found some books about positive psychology and decided I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life.”

The couple married in 2010. And on their anniversary on Jan. 16, they published the first book they have written together – “Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts.”

“My husband and I sat on a beach about eight years ago and we were talking about philosophy,” Suzann said. “I was fascinated by this conversation and began to wonder why we had to limit the positive psychology theories to friendship. What if we applied this to our own marriage?”

The couple decided to focus on the good in one another and worked to help each other become better, not only individually but as a couple. James said they began by focusing on their strengths, which is one way of thinking about the good in others.

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“If each partner identifies their top strengths, they can better understand the good in each other,” James said. “When we begin to see everything from the strength standpoint and not from defects, then we can better respond to one another.”

Shortly after they returned from their honeymoon, Suzann found she was pregnant with their son Liam, which obviously would forever change their lives as a couple.

“It took some negotiating and a lot of time to bring our strengths out and put them into play,” James said. “It’s challenging but we realized that even in writing the book as a real-life married couple, there were differences. Because we worked together, it’s a much higher quality book.”

Since the launch of the book, the couple has been busy promoting it and holding workshops. So far, they have been overwhelmed by the positive reception.

“I think people are craving something like this right now,” Suzann said. “They want to know how they can live happier together as a couple.”

James continues his job at Penn in the MAPP program and Suzann is still writing, though mostly on the topic of positive psychology.

“We encourage folks to visit our website and take a survey to find out their top strengths,” James said. “You can also take a pledge to focus on the good in your partner and to support the development of that good.”

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