By Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile
March 11, 2009
We know, we know—we probably read too many romance novels as teenagers and have definitely seen far too many movies with Hollywood endings, but we couldn't help thinking that marriage would make us happy. After all, we'd finished the hard part, right? We'd met the right guy. We'd decided to spend our lives together. We'd even managed to survive planning a wedding. So, mission accomplished, right? We were married, we were happy, we were planning on having beautiful kids, and we were all going to stay wonderfully blissful for the rest of our lives.
This wishful emotional forecasting seems to reflect our assumption that happiness and marriage go hand in hand. If you're married, you're happy. If you're not married, you're not happy. But when we asked married women and men how happy they actually were, we didn't hear that people were overjoyed. Women said they were "medium" happy. And when we asked how they intended to become happier, they'd scratch their heads and say, "Hmmmm...hadn't really thought about that."
The most surprising thing to us was how few women were doing anything to make themselves happier. Part of the problem is that most of us aren't completely unhappy. We're not in a crisis. We're OK. Not good, not bad, just sort of so-so, and complacently accepting that that's where we're going to stay. But that needn't be the case. Your happiness, your emotional well-being, is largely up to you. If this book only does one thing, we hope it helps you to empower yourself to be happy—both for yourself as an independent person, and for yourself in marriage. For My Mom and Dad, Having a Happy Marriage Wasn't Even an Objective
Americans pack a lot into the idea of marriage. In our spouse we hope to find our best friend, our perfect lover, our ideal co-parent, our romantic hero, our partner in financial stability, and our fountain of happiness. But if you step back a moment and look at how people conceived of marriage in other times and places, you'll find that it wasn't until recently that happiness was considered part of the equation. People got married because it was expected of them; because you weren't supposed to have sex or kids without getting married; and because women needed to for economic reasons. And people stayed married for all those reasons, plus a few more. Because they were loyal. Because they felt they could not get divorced. And perhaps more importantly, because they said they would. Marriage was a solemn and binding contract. A commitment to happiness was not part of the vows.
"I think that for my mom and dad, having a happy marriage wasn't even an objective," one man we interviewed, Jim, told us about his own parents. "My dad fought in WWII. Feelings? I don't know if he even had them! He didn't expect happiness; he never saw it as the goal."
We're not out to suggest that happiness should not be your goal—just the opposite, in fact. But after talking with lots of married men and women, we did come to the realization that we need to think about "happiness" much more carefully and proactively. We entered adult life with lots of big ideas about what would make us happy—a husband, kids, a job, a house. And while these are centrally important to our lives, they are not what we should be relying on to make ourselves happy. Complicating matters, when those things don't make us happy, we tend to blame our marriage, when in reality we can only be as happy in our marriages as we are in ourselves. The job of producing personal happiness is really up to us. A Perfect Life Is a Ludicrous Goal
There has been a lot of research about happiness lately, and among the most important findings is that we tend not to be very good predictors of how happy or unhappy certain life changes will make us in the long run. We overestimate the happiness we'll feel when we get what we think we want. We assume the big new house or the promotion will make us happy—and it does, for a little while. Or we think that a loss will leave us permanently unhappy, and the reality is that we adapt much better than we ever imagined we could.
Another big happiness myth women keep bumping up against is the idea that because we have more choices and opportunities in a post-feminist world, we will be happier than our mothers were. Yet while women today can get advanced educations and have high-powered careers, the truth, as almost everybody knows, is that we are not whistling on a cloud. We are stressed out. We are tired. Sure, we're not feeling as penned in as our mothers were. But we are struggling—truly struggling—to find a way to be happy while trying to do it all.
Related to this is another misconception women seem to harbor today: that perfection and happiness are directly connected. We assume that if we can achieve absolute perfection in our lives, we will be absolutely happy. So therefore it must follow that if we can get our lives to be almost perfect, we will be almost happy, and if our lives are far from perfect, then we will be far from happy.
This seems kind of logical, until you realize what a setup it is. Trying to create a perfect life is a ludicrous goal. Instead of leading us closer to happiness, it leads us farther from it. We feel like failures as we continually fall short of our imagined goal—being that perfectly dressed woman with a perfect job raising perfect children with a perfect husband in a perfect, and perfectly clean, house. Our Little Bundles of...Joy?
So let's talk: What the heck is going on? Most of us were happy to get pregnant. And happy to give birth. And most of us expected that having kids would make our happiness quotient spike. The problem is, we didn't realize that kids and happiness exist in a complicated relationship to one another. Yes, our children make us happy in many, many ways. But they also drive us nuts. They permanently change our marriages and our relationships with our spouses. Remember how much you loved how sporty and free-and-easy your windsurfer boyfriend was? Now that he's your husband and the father of your children, do you still think it's so cool that he likes to spend all Saturday offshore?
Another thing we didn't quite realize would happen until we became parents was that we'd start to associate happiness with some future time, some imagined life phase when parenting would be easier. That we'd be happier when the kids were out of diapers, or when the kids were in school, or when they were old enough to be more self-sufficient, or when they packed up for college and left the house.
Literally hundreds of parenting issues tweak the happiness level in our homes. Hair washing. Doctor's appointments. Homework. Driving. Another major bummer (we might as well call it what it is) is the doling out of discipline and privileges. Do you agree with your spouse about when Johnny should get a timeout? Do you agree on whether or not he should have a TV in his room? If he's behaved well enough to get dessert? If his grades are high enough to sleep over at a friend's house? And it pretty much goes without saying: If you're fighting about the kids, marital happiness often goes out the window. It's hard not to blame a spouse—especially one you've been disagreeing with on parenting issues—when things go awry. If you weren't such a softie . . . If you ever gave her a sense of freedom ... If you'd just stick with her bedtime routine ... If you didn't give in to his tantrums ... One mom we know calls these the "nevah evahs." These accusations are always tempting, but they're a recipe for disaster. Blame has made few people happy. Whatever the trouble, the key is to work through it together. Why Your Husband Is Smiling
How are our husbands doing, happiness-wise? Slightly better than we are. Today, men are ranked happier than women overall. According to a 2007 Wharton study, men spend less time on things that they report as "stressful," and are less stressed-out as a result. We know from our own research that men don't put the same kind of pressure on themselves that we do to get it all done, and done perfectly. So putting their feet up once in a while and relaxing doesn't bring on the guilt pangs like it does for us.
After talking with many married men and women, we came up with a few theories to explain this. One is that women are still doing more than their fair share of domestic chores, even if they're also earning a substantial portion of the family income. As one mom, Sandy, said, "I come home from work, I'm tired, and it's still up to me to get dinner ready, oversee homework, and get the kitchen cleaned up. It's really hard to paint a smile on my face and lovingly say, 'Hi honey! How was your day?' when I'm in the midst of it all."
Another reason why men are happier than women is that women tend to have higher expectations for their happiness, and are therefore more likely to fail to reach those standards. (How insidious is that—being even more miserable because you've failed to reach your happiness goals?) Women are also more prone to link their happiness to things outside of themselves. I'll be happy if my husband comes home and thanks me for making dinner. I'll be happy if my kids behave themselveswell. I'll be happy if I can watch an entire episodeof Grey's Anatomy without having to get up. Then, if those things don't happen, we're not happy, when it might have been possible to be happy if we hadn't pinned our joy to external things. What Doesn't Lead to Divorce Makes Your Stronger
Another item crimping our happiness in married life is fear—fear of not being the same people we were before we had kids. Fear of not being as sexy as we used to be. Fear of not supporting the family the way we think we should. Fear of not raising perfect-enough kids. Fear of not earning enough money (for those of us who are breadwinners) or fear of being financially dependent (for those of us who've left the workplace). These fears are real, even if we wish they were not, and we need to face them openly if we want to get past them and be happy.
Some of these fears are as easy to allay as checking for monsters under the bed. (Take a good look. See anything there? Nope—let's move on.) Others, however, lie deep in our psyche, and we need to really examine them if we want to get past the problem.
One of the biggest fears we heard from married men and women was the fear of hitting some kind of marriage crisis, reaching that "dealbreaker" moment when married life as we've known it dissolves. But we were surprised to learn that an affair wasn't the number-one dealbreaker on most men's and women's minds. The number-one dealbreaker was losing the house or some other financial disaster. What's more, couples who had already lived through affairs were not so afraid that another would lead to the end of their marriages. They'd been through the worst and come out the other side. Some even reported feeling stronger for it.
In fact, one thing we heard again and again was that crises actually made marriages stronger. "I do think we got stronger because of hitting rock bottom—I made the conscious choice to make this a good marriage," one mom told us. Especially after years of sleep deprivation and diapers, it can take a good crisis to truly appreciate and understand each other as a couple again. Of course, it would be great if life were simpler and more straightforward and didn't require this, but it seems to be the nature of existence. It took a crisis to make us decide to re-embrace our love was a refrain we heard over and over. 4 Basic Ingredients for a Happy Married Life
This doesn't mean you need to go out and manufacture a crisis. There are simpler ways to become happy. After talking with a lot of experts, we came up with a short list of the ingredients required for a happy married life.
The first is to realize that happiness isn't something somebody else provides for you, it's something you make for yourself. Happiness starts inside. An unhappy person with a great husband, great kids, a great house, and a great job is still an unhappy person.
The second ingredient is to realize that you and your husband may have different priorities, and that's OK. Willard Harley Jr., author of His Needs, Her Needs, asked husbands and wives to rank the importance of ten emotional needs: Admiration, Affection, Conversation, Domestic Support, Family Commitment, Financial Support, Honesty, Openness, Physical Attractiveness, Recreational Companionship, and Sexual Fulfillment. Guess what he found? "Nearly every time I asked couples to list their needs according to their priority, men listed them one way and women the opposite way. Of the ten basic emotional needs, the five listed as most important by men were usually the five least important for women, and vice versa." It's not intentional; it's just that we're coming from different places. We're trying to do things for our spouse that we know would make us happy. But our spouses might not appreciate the same things at all.
Realistic Expectations for Marriage
The third ingredient is to come up with a vision of marriage that is attainable and sustainable, and supports everyone involved. You've got to let go of some things, and readjust to others, without blaming your spouse. Aligning expectations with reality can be a challenge, particularly once we've had kids. But if we hang on too tightly to who we were before we had kids, resentment builds and happiness suffers. "I've learned to give up golf, but my wife isn't OK with giving up her stuff," one husband named Barry told us. But guess who's happier in the marriage? Being happy means making peace with your life, and not blaming your spouse for your losses. The harder you try to hold on to who you were before you had kids, the harder it is on the relationship. We talked to a lot of men who were really unhappy right after their first child was born. They felt like they'd lost their wife to the baby, and they blamed either her or the baby for it. Happiness only reappeared once they accepted their new reality.
Finally, the fourth ingredient of a good marriage is forgiveness. Not forgiving each other, for matters either large or small, creates ongoing tension. It's easy to say and hard to do, but forgive your spouse for whatever he's done, if you possibly can. Forgiveness will enable you to let go of negative feelings and live in the present. We all know what it feels like to live with resentment and anger, and those feelings can—and probably will—only worsen if forgiveness is not a regular practice in your marriage. The 7-Out-of-10 Rule
Central to creating realistic expectations is accepting yourself and your spouse as imperfect. One woman we interviewed, Trina, has decided to deal with this by coining the "seven out of ten rule." "I believe in the seven out of ten rule when it comes to your husband," she explained. "Everything used to bug me, but when I sat down and thought about it, I realized he has seven out of ten qualities I want out of a husband. Now I try to not let the three things he doesn't have bum me out."
Mental tricks like this can help you change the mood of your marriage, and fill your home with humor and positive energy instead of disappointment and frustration. The key is to take control of how you see things. Jack Canfield, author of The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, explains that you can't change an event—you can't change if your husband gets in a fender bender, or if your six-year-old develops a Bratz obsession—but you can change your response to that event, and that shifts the outcome.
A corollary of the event + response = outcome equation is this: a happy spirit is contagious, and so is a grumpy spirit. We've all been there: You've had a hard day, he's had a hard day, and he comes in barking and yelling. You can't change that event—the barking and yelling—but you can change how you respond. You can yell "Fuck off!" and ruin your whole night in a huge screaming fight. Or you can say, "Wow, something must've happened today . . . what's wrong?" Guess which response is going to lead to the happier evening?
It's pretty simple, really: You can follow someone else's mood, or you can create a better one. Creating that better mood is work, but we all need to let go of the idea of happiness as a birthright and start seeing it as something we put energy into creating for ourselves and our families every day.
Gratitude Is Not Your Good China
Part of creating a good mood is to look at the world with a "glass half-full" attitude, appreciating what you do have instead of focusing on what you don't. Feeling resentful? Let go of that feeling by paying attention to all the things you're grateful for. Research shows that expressing gratitude actually lessens depressive symptoms and increases the level of happiness. As Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason, writes, "People who are happy for no reason don't necessarily have more in their lives to be grateful for; they simply focus more often on gratitude throughout their day. The difference is where they choose to put their attention." She continues, "It's easy to take things for granted. How much time during the day do you actually focus on gratitude compared to the time you spend thinking about the problems in your life? We act as if gratitude and appreciation are our good china and our fancy tablecloth, and bring them out only on really special occasions."
Of course, we all face legitimate roadblocks to our happiness. We all have behaviors or even genes that have been passed down that we don't want in our lives and in our marriages. But if we can identify them, we can begin to work with them or around them, instead of letting them control our lives.
We don't mean to suggest that you should start running around like a cult-inductee with a fake smile plastered on your face. None of us is happy constantly, and emotions change much more quickly than some of us might think. As Dan Baker, author of What Happy People Know, says, "We know, for example, that women appear to vacillate from happiness to sadness far more quickly than men. When it comes to raising children, women say that it's both more difficult and more rewarding than they could have ever imagined. In fact, women experience more of all emotions except anger, and while they experience 2–4 times more depression than men, they also report more positive emotions more frequently and more intensely."
A Happiness Set Point
So how can we be happier? Researchers have found that we each have a "happiness set point," an emotional place we tend to return to unless we make a conscious effort to do something different in our lives. And that emotional set point is only 10 percent determined by outside factors like money, marital status, and job. Only 10 percent! Some researchers have found that four out of five people post-divorce were still not satisfied or happy in their lives. (Of course, we didn't talk to all those people, but it's pretty safe to assume those divorcées thought their marriages were making them unhappy, when it turned out they were just unhappy, period, and their marriages could not fix that.) The key here is to know that, despite our individual set points, we need to be proactive about wanting to be happy and doing something about it.
As a mom named Shana said to us, "I could go to bed and be asleep when he gets home, or try to stay up and chat with him. To me, that's choosing happiness. It's not a mind-set. It's choosing to talk, choosing to be with him. It's unglamorous, but I know I need to stay up to say hello to him." Happiness: Use It or Lose It
One last especially difficult thing about happiness—how do you choose between making yourself happy today and delaying gratification to build a happier future?
This is a really tough one, as delayed gratification is one of the hallmarks of maturity: If we all only did what would make us happy right this second, we'd all still be emotional teenagers with no jobs, no homes, and no degrees. But after talking to hundreds of men and women, it's safe to say that our generation has gone to the other extreme. We're all so worried about what it'll take to make us happy in the future—the beefy 401(k), the college savings account—that many of us are neglecting what we need to be happy right now. We think, 'OK, I'm pretty stressed-out at the moment, and I haven't relaxed since I went to the beach when I was pregnant with my first kid. But I'll be happy once my youngest child is in school, or I'll be happy once my husband gets his promotion, or I get mine." And then, of course, when that time comes, we may have forgotten how to be happy altogether.
One way to prevent this from happening to you is to think of happiness as a muscle. Like your quadriceps or your brain, your capacity for happiness needs to be used or it will start to deteriorate. Granted, it's important to think about tomorrow. It's important to imagine where you want to be in five or ten years. But so many of us are so worried about what we need to do to be happy in the future that we are failing to be happy at all. Which is a shame. To be happy in marriage, you need to be together when you are together. You need to focus on each other, right now, today. You need to create special moments with your spouse, rather than expecting them to just happen or going through the motions of "date night." We all have so much in our lives; we just need to enjoy the present.
And if working on happiness for yourself and your spouse is not enough, do it for your kids. If the adults in your house are freaking out, your children will pick up on that stress and things will snowball, leading to bad behavior and more strife. If you want to have harmony at home with your kids, you need to have harmony at home with your spouse (and harmony within yourself). "If you're happy in your marriage, then your kids tend to be happy," is how one mom, Maureen, put it. "The kids will start acting crazy if you're not nurturing your relationship."