Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Marital Happiness

Erin Belanger, LMHC and David Olsen, PhD

Everyone entering into marriage expects to experience happiness, and often couples get off to a good start. In time, however, happiness begins to fade and problems emerge. We have spent a lot of time in previous articles describing what could go wrong, but perhaps it is more important to talk about what works. What do healthy couples do to sustain happiness? Even more important, how can we know what sustainable happiness is?

There are two ways we can understand and classify happiness: hedonistic happiness, and its opposite, eudaimonic happiness. (Impress your friends and family by dropping that phrase at your next get together!) It is important for couples to determine which they are primarily pursuing, because the stability of their marriage and sustainability of their happiness is impacted by their choice.

Hedonistic Happiness

Hedonistic happiness focuses on pleasure and self indulgence. The word “hedonism” comes from the Greek word for “pleasure” or “delight.” It focuses on how your partner can make you happy, on how your needs can get met, and how marriage itself can lead to a happier life. Too often, however, the harder we try to create or even demand that our partners meet our needs and make us happy, the more miserable we become.

Hedonistic forms of happiness can certainly be a fun part of marriage, but we know that focusing solely on this type of happiness is only satisfying for a very short time. There are only so many parties, amazing vacations, and expensive purchases that couples can pull off. In the end, hedonistic happiness ends when the experience ends, leading to a crash “back to reality” and the need to seek the next experience that will feel good again. You know the feeling when, on the flight back from vacation you are already fantasizing about planning the next trip. Unfortunately, the couple who focuses primarily on hedonistic happiness in relationship may ultimately increase dissatisfaction because it feels like there is something wrong with the relationship when happiness isn’t sustainable. In the end, hedonistic happiness is fleeting and shallow, even though it is what our culture tells us we should chase.

Eudaimonic Happiness

Eudaimonic happiness is different. The word “eudaimonic” comes from the Greek roots “eu” (good) and “daimon” (spirit). The pursuit of eudaimonic happiness focuses on finding meaning and purpose in life, and a connection to something larger than ourselves. This sometimes means that we will experience difficult emotions as we work to adapt, grow, and connect during times of adversity. Research has shown that psychological flexibility - the ability to tolerate emotional discomfort for a period of time - leads to experiencing a life that is richer in purpose and more meaningful. This is the long-view, which is the exact opposite of the short-term hedonistic view.

In marriage, this means sharing feelings and experiences with our partners and feeling held and understood… even when those feelings are not “happy”. It also means being able to receive our partner’s feelings in the same way without reacting by closing ourselves off to them or pushing them away. As partners, engaging in acts of kindness and service to others as a way of connecting with a larger purpose in life together, leads to a greater sense of satisfaction and joy. Participating in a spiritual community together can do the same.

Moving toward Eudaimonic Happiness

If your goal is to have a happy marriage, you probably won’t achieve it by simply trying to be happy. However, having more transcendent goals may indirectly move you toward happiness together. For example, some couples act on their desire to change history by giving their children and grandchildren a different life than they had, which becomes a transcendent goal. These couples are willing to sacrifice some short-term happiness to attend to what their children and grandchildren need, knowing in the long run, this will bring deep happiness and satisfaction.

Others are committed to spiritual growth, or a religious community. Together, they focus on living out a practical spirituality while staying committed to their spiritual communities. Their goal is not just personal spiritual enrichment, but the betterment of their larger community. Some even agree to reject a more materialistic lifestyle for the sake of giving back to those less fortunate.

Still others find a cause or charity, like Habitat for Humanity (witness Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter), or the Heifer project, or tutoring kids, or helping the environment. The possibilities are endless, but all point to a commitment to something greater. Couples that have these common goals achieve a deeper and longer lasting happiness that, in the end, is far more satisfying.

Perhaps all of these ways of finding long-term, deep happiness are why the words of Jesus are so profound: “Seek first the kingdom of God… and all these things will be added unto you”. Focusing on transcendent meaning first leads to long term happiness.

The alternative rock band, Cage the Elephant, captures the opposite in their lyrics:

     “Well it’s cold, cold, cold inside

      Darker in the day than the dead of night

      Cold, cold, cold, cold inside

      Doctor can you help me ‘cause something don’t feel right

      Something don’t feel right.”

The pursuit of hedonistic happiness in the end will feel cold and empty and meaningless, leaving couples wondering what is missing and then, too often, blaming each other. But when we face all of life together as partners, engaging in support of one another and the greater world around us, we experience deep meaning, purpose, and connection. We not only feel more connected to one another, but also to the greater aspects of life.