Our closest friends flanked the concrete steps of our church as we made our way to the waiting car adorned with the obligatory “Just Married” sign. We couldn’t have been happier. After seven years of dating — through most of high school and all of college — we were a married couple. Finally.
After a romantic honeymoon on the Oregon coast, we moved to Los Angeles for graduate school. A tiny apartment, little more than a single room, became our new home. We’d spend our weekdays in classes and study until bedtime. No television. Barely any furniture. We watched every penny. We’d occasionally splurge on a couple of burritos at the corner taco stand. Life wasn’t exactly easy. But all that didn’t matter. We were in love. And we were happy — until we weren’t.
Little did we know that shortly into our so-called happy marriage, we’d be in couples counseling trying to, well, be happy. After all, wasn’t marriage supposed to do that for us? And if marriage wasn’t making us happy, was there something wrong with us? Had we made a huge mistake?
Truth be told, happiness is in short supply for too many couples. And the reason, we suspect, is that they don’t work at it — or more likely, they don’t know how to work at it. Happiness, after all, is not something that happens; it’s something you make.
Isn’t marriage supposed to make us happy?
Once we find our perfect partner, we’ll have a lock on happiness, right? That’s what we thought. And with good reason: The notion has some truth. Marriage does make us happy. The problem is that marriage will not make us as intensely happy — or for as long — as we believe it should. Studies reveal that the happiness boost from marriage lasts an average of only two years.
Unfortunately, when those two years are past and fulfilling our goal to find the ideal partner hasn’t made us as happy as we expected, we often feel there must be something wrong with us or we must be the only ones who feel this way. But we’re not. It’s the common course of love. And if left unattended, if we’re not deliberately “making happy” together, our relationship suffers.
So what’s a couple to do? How do you make happy together? The answer is found in understanding just what happiness is.
What is happiness?
Happiness comes in two forms. Both result in feelings of satisfaction, but each has a different shelf life:
“Feel-good happiness” is the momentary sensation of pleasure. For example, when we joke around or have sex, we experience feel-good happiness. But here’s the catch: We know from research that feel-good happiness is ruled by the law of diminishing returns. This type of happiness can lose its punch, and it rarely lasts longer than a few hours at a time.
“Values-based happiness” is a deeper sense that our lives have meaning and fulfill a larger purpose than just pleasure. It represents a spiritual source of satisfaction. And here’s some good news: It’s not ruled by the law of diminishing returns. This means there’s no limit to how meaningful and happy our lives can be. Some like to call values-based happiness joy because it’s deep and more abiding. That’s fine with us. Whatever you call it, it’s found in our values.
For the uninformed, happiness becomes less about a well-lived life and more about experiencing the well-felt moment. That’s a dead end. True happiness requires meaning and values to accompany our feelings.
Must we be unhappy?
Our circumstances account for only about 10 percent of our happiness. In other words, being relatively healthy and having a job that pays enough money to meet our needs are circumstances that contribute to our overall happiness, but keep in mind this is only 10 percent.
A more significant factor is our “happiness set point.” It has to do with our genes. Researchers have found that 50 percent of our happiness is determined by our biology. Turns out that some brains are happier than others. We sometimes call it temperament. And we’re more or less stuck with it.
If our happiness set point is on the low end, making us less happy than others, are we doomed to stay that way? Hardly. The remaining 40 percent of our happiness is within our control.
Thankfully, lasting happiness does not lie mainly in increasing our set point or improving our circumstances. A significant portion of our happiness comes down to the choices we make.
How can we boost our happiness?
We’ve combed through all the scientific studies we could find on happiness to identify the best of what works to make and maintain happiness in marriage. And we’ve settled on a half dozen happiness boosters that are sure to move the needle in your relationship. These are the six dials we know couples can turn to get the best results:
Count your blessings. Nothing can increase happiness more quickly in a relationship than shared gratitude. Taking the time to conscientiously count your blessings together once a week significantly increases your overall satisfaction with life.
Try new things. Falling into a routine, or even a rut, is easy. But that is a killer to happiness, so you’ve got to shake it up. If you’re itching to “buy” some happiness, spend your hard-earned cash on experiences. Go out for a nice meal. Go to the theater or bungee jump. Buy an adventure rather than an object.
Dream a dream. The moment a couple quits looking to the future together is the moment they become vulnerable to dissatisfaction. So picture the life and love you see for yourselves, and talk to each other about what you see.
Celebrate each other. We all applaud the big things, but it’s the little and unexpected celebrations that can make or break a couple’s happiness. For example, listening to a favorite song activates parts of the brain that trigger happiness, releasing endorphins similar to the ways that sex and food do. A mini celebration ensues. Why not put a little playlist together for just the two of you?
Attune your spirits. The soul of every husband and wife hungers for deeper connection and a greater sense of shared meaning, and when it’s found, happiness abounds. According to sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia, married couples who attend church together tend to be happier than couples who rarely or never attend services.
Add value to others. When a husband and wife do good beyond their marriage, happiness envelops their relationship like never before. Together, make a list of at least 50 actions you can take to demonstrate kindness beyond your relationship.
Does God want us to pursue happiness?
We understand the sentiment that “making happy” is a selfish pursuit. After all, some silly and downright selfish things are done in the name of pursuing happiness. Many a marriage counselor will attest to hearing something along these lines: “I’m not happy in this marriage; God wants me to be happy; therefore I want out of this marriage.”This self-centered perspective is mistaking hedonism for happiness. They are pursuing pleasure at the cost of meaning. Don’t fall for this lie. You’ll find more happiness in giving yourself away than in any self-centered pleasure.
Our longtime friend Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage and many other books, is well-known for asking the question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy instead of happy?” How could it be otherwise? The pursuit of holiness can’t help but bring an abiding happiness and joy. Why? Because holiness, being devoted to God’s ways of being, subsumes meaning and love. And true happiness is never fulfilled without it.
Happy people are more loving people — the very opposite of selfish. True happiness makes us more sociable and self-giving. It improves our ability to resolve conflict. The bottom line: Happiness makes us more loving and lovable.
Even Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). So is valuing happiness selfish? Not if it’s the kind of happiness that balances feelings with values. Healthy happiness, infused with meaning, makes us easy to live with. And that makes for a happy marriage.
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are New York Times best-selling authors and the founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. This article is adapted from Making Happy: The art and science of a happy marriage, published by Worthy Publishing, © 2014 Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott.
This article appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Thriving Family Copyright © 2014 by Les & Leslie Parrott. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.