Episode 79

How to Create a Truly Flourishing Relationship

Relationships can be tricky because they mix together two people with different backgrounds and habits, and sometimes things get a bit tangled up. It’s like blending two different paint colors without making a mess! Every relationship hits rough patches, but we can turn those bumps in the road into springboards for growing closer.

In this episode of the HAPPINESS SQUAD Podcast, Ashish Kothari, Founder of Happiness Squad, discusses how to cultivate positive emotions to deepen our relationships.

Things you will learn from this episode:

• How to generate positive emotions

• Practice being a ‘gratitude detective’

• Managing negative emotions and interactions

• The most destructive behaviors in relationships.


• Rewire Program: https://happinesssquad.com/rewire-program/

• The Happiness Squad on Apple Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-happiness-squad/id1663683864

• Happiness Squad Podcast: https://podcast.happinesssquad.com/

• Happiness Squad website: https://happinesssquad.com/

• Happiness Squad on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/myhappinesssquad/

• The Magic Relationship Ratio by Dr. John Gottman: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/


• Hardwired for Happiness: 9 Proven Practices to Overcome Stress and Live Your Best Life.https://www.amazon.com/Hardwired-Happiness-Proven-Practices-Overcome/dp/1544534655

• The Prophet by Khalil Gibran: https://www.amazon.com/Prophet-Kahlil-Gibran/dp/B001AGWEMK


Ashish Kothari: Hi, dear friends. Welcome to yet another episode of the Happiness Squad podcast. This one is the third in our series of solo podcasts that we record once a month, focusing on how you can use the sunflower model to hardwire yourself for happiness and resolve many of the issues that we deal with in our day-to-day lives.

Deepening relationships

Today's key topic is deepening relationships with our spouses and partners as a way to truly flourish. One of the longest-running studies at Harvard on flourishing highlighted the quality of relationships as one of the most important drivers of flourishing. There is no relationship more central to us, where we spend the most time, than those with our partners and spouses.

We'll start there and discuss how these nine practices can help us deepen that relationship and, through that relationship, ensure that we are happier, more resilient, more adaptable, and truly able to better navigate whatever life throws at us.

So, why are we even talking about this? Why is it such a big deal? Marriages are among the happiest moments in someone's life. For me, the day I married Lizzie, April 11th, is deeply etched in my memory as a highlight that fundamentally shifted my life in a positive direction, and I'm sure it's the same for many of you. On that day, we make vows to be with each other "till death do us apart."

Yet, at least in the U.S., over 40% of these relationships end in separation or divorce within the first eight years, and over 50% result in divorce or separation overall. What goes wrong? What happens? And how can we prevent that from happening? When relationships sour, they come with a huge amount of emotional, financial, and mental stress and suffering.

So how do we make sure that that doesn't happen? And instead, harness all the positive effects that marriages and partnerships can give for us.

Generate positive emotions

Now, we know from research by Dr. Brendan Case and Tyler Vander Waal, associate director and director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, that marriage promotes human flourishing. It results in increased longevity, higher purpose in life, lower depression and loneliness, and greater happiness and hopefulness.

Their studies also found that the effects of marriage showed significant reductions in smoking, heart disease, stroke, and all causes of mortality over a 25-year period—almost a 30 percent reduction. When relationships are healthy, they are a significant source of joy.

In fact, I would say that finding the right spouse or creating the right conditions with your spouse where both of you grow together and deeply connected with each other, can be the biggest source of joy, and perhaps the most important decision you will make in your life.

So let's talk about managing conflicts because avoiding them is not the answer. Conflicts give us direction on what's working versus what's not. Life throws us obstacles and hardships, and if we have a strong relationship, we can get better.

The research by Dr. John and Julie Gottman, two preeminent researchers in the field, focuses on what makes relationships work and not work. They coined what is now called the Gottman Ratio, 5 to 1.

What they found in their research, as they studied couples that stayed together and couples that drifted apart, that there was a very distinctly different pattern in how they resolved their conflicts and the overall space in which they interacted.

Those spaces were not characterized by 1:1, or 1 positive versus 1 negative interaction. It was characterizes by 5:1; 5 positive to one negative interaction. The negative interactions are things like anger, blaming, defensiveness, name calling. Positive interactions are filled with joy, appreciation, gratitude, hope, love, and intimacy.

So 5:1 is the ratio that they found on couples who stayed together that had five positive interactions for every negative one, whereas those who divorced had slightly more negative interactions than positive, with a ratio of 0.8 to 1. So they had slightly more negative interactions than positive interactions.

Let's discuss some specific strategies by leveraging the Sunflower Model to achieve this ratio.

Let's first discuss how the Sunflower Model can help us generate positive emotions.


The foremost thing we often overlook is the power of gratitude. Intentionally practicing gratitude and appreciation for our spouse can be incredibly powerful. Our minds, wired for negativity, often dwell on what's not going well, quite the contrast to when we first meet our partners.

Initially, we are enamored, focusing on all the positive things—how beautiful they look, how vivacious and kind they are, their interest in us, how they make us feel. That’s what we initially focus on. However, over time, due to hedonic adaptation, we start taking these qualities for granted and focus on negatives.

They might be a little messy, they might be a little absent-minded, they might be thinking too much from the heart or too much from the head, and we might be different.

When we first go out and start dating, we want to look our best, but that might have changed over time. When we get married and we're living, we might not have enough energy to take care of ourselves as much. Over time, we stop appreciating, we stop giving thanks.

So, one micro-practice I invite you to start is being a 'gratitude detective.' Start a journal, notice all the things they do for you that you might take for granted. Perhaps they do the laundry, fold your clothes, play a bigger role in caring for your children, cook meals, or keep in touch with friends.

There are so many things that our spouses do that we don't notice: Asking how are you when you come back, offering a word of kindness. Just start to notice all the different things that they're doing every day that are making it possible for you to enjoy what you're doing.

This is especially important for couples who are both working, as we often focus on what our partner is not doing versus what they are doing, that can be a huge source of frustration and agony. Instead, let's look at what they are doing for us and the small ways in which they are contributing to our quality of life and the life of our children.

Promote well-being

Secondly, we can focus on activities that promote well-being, which we can do together. Our busy work lives and family responsibilities put a lot of pressure on us. When we have kids or even if we don’t, we have busy jobs.

Often, acts of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being are great opportunities to deepen intimacy with our spouses. So let’s talk about three things that can make a big difference.

Physically, you might go for runs or walks together. My wife and I, for example, made it a point to walk together daily during COVID.

Mentally, consider building a new skill together, such as starting a dance class or learning a new language in anticipation of a trip. Thinking about activities that you can do together can renew that spark, the fun and play.

Spiritually, spending time in nature or participating in community spiritual activities like attending church or temple can be powerful. Nature is an amazing healer; it grounds us and creates opportunities for experiencing awe and oneness with each other and the universe.

So the second petal of well-being, actively thinking about doing well-being together rather than just for oneself, can be a very powerful approach. Given how busy we all are with our lives right now and the many demands we have on each other.

Acts of kindness

The third one that I would turn to around positive emotions is acts of kindness.

We know that when we give, we receive so much more, and there are no relationships worth giving into more than those with our loved ones, with our partners.

Whether it is a week or every other week, surprising your partner with some flowers, a smile, a hug, or maybe a surprise unplanned date night. Small acts of kindness that we can give to our partner, or maybe to those who we care about, can make a big difference in a relationship and generate more positive emotions.

We can further amplify this by taking on volunteer activities together, maybe once a week or once a month, even once a quarter, something that we engage in together to make an impact in the communities in which we live and with people we care about.

Again, things that we do together in the service of another ground us in the shared humanity of how much struggle there is out there and collectively we are making a difference.

That act of giving that you do together, that seed that you sow, will continue to reap rich fruits way beyond that act itself. So the third one is practicing acts of kindness for self and for others.

Purpose and meaning

The fourth practice in the Sunflower Model that can be helpful in generating positive emotions is the practice of purpose and meaning.

Continuously grounding ourselves despite the busyness of life, and everything that comes at us, focusing on our bigger 'why' can be a huge source of renewal and recommitment. I know many couples who, every seven, eight, 10, 12, 15 years—you choose the number—renew their vows.

Imagine if we renewed our commitment to each other every quarter, taking a step back and connecting together to have a heart-to-heart conversation where we give each other time and space to discuss our dreams.

What's working well for you? What's not? How are things going at your job? How are things with your friends? In the day-to-day struggle, we get so caught up in the mundane that we forget to notice the magical.

We're so busy problem-solving and creating solutions to everyday issues—whether it’s that your son or daughter is sick, your boss is not understanding, your targets are high, or the plumbing needs fixing, the faucet is leaking, and so on, that we actually forget the time. We don't take the time to just connect with each other.

We all grow and change—change is a part of life, but we still hold on to the image of the person we fell in love with, long after they’ve changed. Think about how much you’ve changed.

These quarterly check-ins can be a really powerful way to continue to dream together, invest together, maintain your North Star, and ensure that you’re continuously tacking in the right direction rather than drifting apart.


The next practice that can help us increase positive emotions is the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a meta practice that is crucial for fostering connection, love, and admiration because we need to be physiologically and emotionally grounded. We need to be calm and stable. Practicing mindfulness, whether together with our spouses and children or individually, can help us lower our emotional triggers.

Through meditation, our amygdala shrinks, our prefrontal cortex increases in gray matter, and our emotional regulation improves. This skill is vital because, in conflict, when we get triggered and the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism activates, this meta skill can make a significant difference in how we respond and how we find our center in the midst of the storm.

I invite you, as a family, to start mindfulness practices together. Perhaps it's just a minute over dinner, or maybe you start or end your days together instead of numbing ourselves with TV. We could take 5 or 10 minutes to practice mindfulness together.

One powerful technique is the practice of loving kindness, or Metta Meditation from Buddhism. This practice involves repeating four phrases: "May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering, and may you be at peace."

We begin by imagining a loved one sending these wishes to us, and then we send them back. You can practice this with your spouse in mind, or extend it to the rest of the community.

Cultivating loving kindness, compassion, and good feelings for all are central to this practice. You can find a script for Metta Meditation in my book, "Hard Wired for Happiness," or you can search for guides on YouTube.

This mindfulness practice not only benefits us individually but also strengthens our relationships and extends our positive intentions to the broader community.

Nurturing connections

The last practice that I would highlight here, and I think this is a big one, is connection—not just with our spouse but really engaging in a rich web of relationships around us.

In our work lives, we get so busy that all we have is some time at home and maybe a little time for ourselves, but we lose connection with our friends and the broader community.

The richer the web of connections we have, the more support structures we've got, and the stronger the foundation on which our relationship sits.

It creates space to share the burden around creating amazing experiences. Both Lizzie and I are lucky to have a large set of friends that support us, that renew us, that nurture us.

It also reminds us that when we truly connect with others, what we think are just our problems are not just our problems. These are shared problems; everybody has them. So sometimes we run into the story of, "Oh, look at my life and all these issues. Everybody else has a perfect life," and nothing is further from the truth.

Conflicts are a part of life. Arguments are a part of life. Hardships are a part of life. It's true for all of them. It doesn't matter what we see on Instagram; everybody has struggles.

And that shared experience, that we are going through, is what others are going through. This can bring a level of levity into our lives and a level of realism in our lives and keep us committed to working through our relationships together rather than escaping them.

Take responsibility

I talked a lot about these positive emotions and ways in which we can generate them, and really it's all about taking responsibility. I’m reminded of a beautiful story from one of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I deeply revere as a teacher. I've learned so much from him and read his books frequently.

Here was the teaching: Imagine you have a beautiful, colorful, fragrant flower that you bring home. A week or two weeks later, the flower starts to wilt, and it’s not looking so good. My first reaction to a wilting flower is to see what it needs.

Maybe it doesn’t have enough water, so I’ll give it some water. Maybe it’s not getting enough sun, so I put it in the sunlight. Maybe it needs more nutrients, so I put in some nutrients. My focus is on figuring out how I can give what this particular flower needs.

Our relationships are the same. Our partners, our spouses, when we meet them, are like a fragrant flower. But over time, when they start to wilt, what do we do? Our focus immediately goes to blaming: "You’ve changed. You’re not giving me this or that."

Our focus is not on inquiring into what the flower—our partner—needs, how we are contributing, and, more importantly, taking responsibility to create conditions for that flower to blossom again, to be fragrant again, to be filled with color again.

It’s available to us, my dear friends. These positive emotions and the practices I shared with you can be really powerful ways in which we can take small steps towards bringing life back into our relationships with our partners.

Managing negative emotions and interactions

So now let's talk about how we actually manage the negative emotions and interactions.

Conflicts are a core part of life. We are two different individuals. If everything happened the way you want, where would there be space for another? There needs to be space for another, and with that space, conflict will arise because there will be disagreements that you will need to resolve together.

A big part of how we practice and have better conflicts is learning from John Gottman. He identified four key behaviors in conflicts that predict relationship breakdowns. These behaviors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Addressing these effectively can prevent relationships from falling apart.

I find these really powerful, and I try my best to keep these in mind, though I don't always succeed, but the positives that my wife Lizzie, and I have infused into our relationship over 15 years continue to bring joy and deepen our love. I hope these practices help you as much as they have helped me and Lizzie to continually find joy and deepen our love every day.

The Four Horsemen and Their Antidotes

Let’s discuss the "Four Horsemen of the apocalypse," which John and Julie Gottman describe as the most destructive behaviors in relationships.

First is criticism, where one person verbally attacks or blames the other, like saying, "You're not doing this well."

Second is contempt, which involves attacking the other person's sense of self with the intent to insult or abuse, as in comments like, "You are a horrible person. You don't listen to me. You are self-centered."

The third is defensiveness, which can appear as either making ourselves the victim or pointing back at them, such as saying, "Yeah, that's like the pot calling the kettle black."

The fourth is stonewalling, where we tune out because we find it hard to process what our partner is saying, so we just disconnect.

What happens then? The blame, the criticism, and the contempt only grow stronger because they feel you're not listening.

So instead of these four, let's think about what are the four antidotes or four different ways in which we can show up to still have the conflict, still have the disagreement, but not have it in a way that destroys relationships but strengthens them.

So the first is by truly focusing on and talking about our feelings as “I” and expressing them not as a complaint, but as a need. So instead of saying, "You only care about yourself, you're not listening to me, you haven't asked me about my day," let's focus on saying something like, "Hey, I wanted to share that I am feeling like sharing what my day went like and there isn't enough space here for me right now."

Second, instead of defensiveness, when we hear criticism, we can take accountability by saying, "I'm sorry you're feeling this way. Tell me about your day." So instead of defensiveness, we can take responsibility to understand the other's perspective and inquire for a minute.

The third, instead of contempt, we can create a culture of appreciation. All the things we talked about in creating positive emotions, gratitude, appreciation, can play a big role in that.

And fourth, instead of stonewalling, where we turn off, we can explicitly ask for a break. We can turn towards what they call physiological self-soothing."Let's take a break. Let's spend some time apart so we can be in the right emotional space to have the conversation."

It's not always possible to be present. This might not be the right moment. We might be physically exhausted or emotionally drained, nothing to do with what's happening here, but with what we might be carrying from the past or from our day.

So four moves in the midst of a conflict that we can use instead of criticizing, owning, and sharing what you're feeling versus what their role is in making you feel that. Rather than placing blame, let's take ownership of how we are feeling and what we need.

Rather than calling names and making it about their personality or in some shape or form about their sense of self, let's tune in and focus more on the positives. Instead of defensiveness, let's take perspectives and inquire, and instead of stonewalling, let's take a break.

I think these can be really powerful, but there are other ways that we can continue to use the petals of the sunflower, those practices to work on negative emotions.

Forgiveness and Letting go

The second approach we can turn to is letting go of the past and surrendering, a key practice in mastering your emotions.

I want to share a story that captures how we often carry burdens unnecessarily. It's about two Buddhist monks, a younger and an older monk, who were at the bank of a river during a heavy rain. They needed to cross it, and there was a beautiful woman stranded who was quite afraid to cross the river.

She asked for help from the monks, and the older monk agreed to help. He picked her up and, together with the younger monk, they carried her across the river. After putting her down, they continued their journey.

Two days later, the younger monk approached the older monk, troubled. He mentioned: “Master, we took a vow to remain celibate and avoid contact with the opposite sex, yet you had carried the woman across. You broke that vow. I’m really struggling with this because I don’t think you should have done that.”

The older monk responded, "I left that woman on the bank two days ago. Why are you still carrying her two days after?" This story illustrates how we often hold onto past events, hurts, and grievances much longer than necessary.

We continue to water the seeds of hatred and pain. We relive mistakes and harsh words, sowing seeds of unpleasant emotions. Instead, we can practice surrendering, letting go, accepting, and moving on.

One powerful practice I've learned that makes a significant difference is writing out what has happened—the hurt, the disappointment, and then destroying this writing. You could burn it if you have a fireplace or tear it up and throw it away.

With this act, make a vow to let go, choosing to forgive, not for the other person, but for yourself. Holding onto anger and resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other will suffer; it harms us more. And we must remember, it also hurts the other person because we are intimately connected. So, that's a crucial practice—truly letting go of past hurts.


Even in conflict, we can practice compassion. No matter how harsh the conflict is, no matter who’s right or wrong, in any conflict there is suffering for both.

With a loved one, we can tune into that level of compassion for ourselves and for the other, acknowledging that they, too, are suffering and they desire happiness and joy. This can open our hearts and it can be such a powerful practice in those moments.

Let’s say is they are blaming us and we are feeling attacked, our brains naturally go to attack, numb, or move away. But instead, rather than closing, we can open up and recognize the suffering they are in too. This might even lead us to apologize, saying, "I'm so sorry you're feeling this way."

Apologizing for what they’re feeling, does not require you to take blame for the actions you did. Oftentimes, we confuse that. We can still feel sad, we can still express love for how they’re feeling because we deeply care about them, and from that place, see what emerges.

Intention setting

The fourth practice is intention setting, which involves setting boundaries and deciding how we want to live based on our intentions, not just reactions to what life throws at us.

Set clear boundaries

The first part of this is setting clear boundaries to spend quality time with our spouses and partners. Often, in our drive to achieve more at work, to progress, we constantly withdraw from our relationships from our loved ones.

Our bosses might not be as accepting as our spouses, and so we take them for granted and we keep spending more and more time in work, and we keep underinvesting in those relationships at home till they break apart. So set clear boundaries collectively together on how and when you want to spend time together.

Be present

Second, when we are spending time together, practice being present with each other, for each other. There’s so many couples who are together, but both are on their phones. Or if not, they are lost in their own thoughts. I know I’ve done that so many times and my wife always reminds me to put my phone down, or I’m not even here.

We all these mistakes but we can remind ourselves when we are to truly practive being present. One way to foster this presence is by starting with one mindful minute before a meal, perhaps saying grace, a prayer, or simply sharing a quiet moment to appreciate the meal and each other.

Make time for conversations

And then the third practice is about really creating time, dear friends, as I mentioned, at least once a quarter for real conversations with each other. Conversations about how your day was, how your job is going, how things are going in general, and what you're excited about.

This creates space to dream together, to ask a lot of questions, to inquire into the state of the relationship, and to discuss where you want your life to go. With this approach, we can plan how we spend the next quarter, the next six months, the next year together. Because friends, if you're not intentional about this, life will get in the way.

So I hope these practices on how to generate more positive emotions and how to manage and reduce negative emotions have been helpful.

So, dear friends, I wanted to end this episode of the Happiness Squad podcast on how we strengthen and deepen our relationships with a beautiful poem from the book "The Prophet" by Khalil Gibran, titled "On Marriage."

Almitra asked, "What of marriage, master?" And he answered,

"You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

Yes, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

and let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love;

let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous,

but let each one of you be alone,

even as the strings of a lute are alone

though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.

For only the hand of life can contain your hearts.

And stand together, yet not too near together;

for the pillars of the temple stand apart,

and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow."

I hope you found this episode helpful. Please comment and let us know your thoughts and which practices resonated the most with you.

Share it with your friends—we're on a mission to reach a billion people, but we can't do that without your help.

We appreciate your support in sharing what we're discussing here with your friends and colleagues to collectively rewire ourselves for happiness.

About the Podcast

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The Happiness Squad Podcast with Ashish Kothari
Unlock your full potential with the Happiness Squad podcast! Host Ashish Kothari, Founder & CEO, brings leading experts to help you live with more joy, health, love, and meaning. Discover the art and science of happiness to live and operate at your best.

About your host

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Ashish Kothari

Ashish Kothari is the Founder and CEO of Happiness Squad, a company focused on democratizing happiness and touching a billion+ lives over the next 20 years and helping them live with more joy, health, love, and meaning.

Prior to founding Happiness Squad and writing his best-selling book “Hardwired for happiness”, Ashish spent 25 years in consulting, including the last 17 at McKinsey and Co, a premier management consulting firm, helping thousands of clients and their organizations achieve breakthrough performance by building new mindsets and capabilities.

Ashish is a trained ontological coach and a lifelong student of human thriving.