Whether your marriage is good or bad today, I am sure you can recall times when it was happy. Perhaps on your wedding day or the day you moved into your first house. Maybe you two gave birth to a child with those tiny little fingers gripped around one of yours and a smile you just knew was real because those baby eyes were locked on yours when it happened.
Happiness shows up during vacations, job promotions, or working together to open a store. It might show up the day you pay off the mortgage or send the last child to college or the day the hot tub gets installed.
And then it’s gone again. You’re still married, you still own the house, you still have a kid to feed, the hot tub still whirls and bubbles on demand, but the happiness has gone flat.
And then, even though you were recently so happy, your marriage seems less exciting, less likely to last, or–worse–already past its expiration date.
This is why it’s important to learn how to hold onto happiness. Fortunately, positive psychologists are studying ways to do this. One of my favorite reporters of positive psychology news, success researcher Heidi Grant Halvorson, reported last week on research by Sonia Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon into where happiness goes and how to slow its departure.
They found two ways happiness evaporates and studied what works to slow down each of them.
The first is decreasing positive feelings about a change. My husband and I recently moved to a place with incredible views and gorgeous sunsets. For the first month or new, every day brought a new and different experience of nature’s glory. Now, unless a line of wild turkeys struts across the yard or the setting sun lights up the underside of a cloud in pink, I am more likely to notice the Japanese knotweed that needs to come out than the light on the other side of the valley, less likely to wander out onto to back porch behind him and stand there with our arms around each other’s shoulders, admiring what we see.
What Sheldon and Lyubomirsky found is that happiness lasts longer when there’s more variety in the positive events the change brings with it. I’m watching now for the deer and the birds and the crabapples, and we’ve set up a table and chairs on another side of the house.
If we were dieting together, I would want more than one measure of our success, like weight, clothing sizes, running speed, blood sugar, and blood pressure. We could even roll a die to pick a different one to measure each week. If we bought new furniture, I might add variety with throw pillows, new arrangements, sitting in different seats, and swapping holding hands for touching toes, curling up together, or stretching out separately.
More variety gives us a longer run of happiness from the same change.
The other way happiness gets away from us is increased aspirations, aka the What Next disease. “I love our new house, but don’t you think it deserves new bedroom furniture?” Worse yet, “This house is so much better than our old one; I can’t wait for when we can afford something with a guest suite.”
The antidote to increased aspirations robbing you two of your happiness is appreciation. As Dr. Halvorson reports:
Appreciating can mean paying attention or noticing, but it is even more powerful when you take it further – when you savor something, delighting in its qualities and relishing how it makes you feel, or when you experience gratitude, a sense of being fortunate for being in your current circumstances compared to others, or compared to where you have been in the past. When we appreciate our positive experiences, when we turn our mind’s eye toward them again and again in joy and wonder, we don’t just make our happiness last – we kick it up a notch, too.
When the two of you move a sofa or make a meal together, stop to appreciate your teamwork and success before you start anything else. If you can remember being happy to marry your husband or wife, think about why. Then compare what you’ve got today on those dimensions to what you had before marriage, not to what you had at the peak. Savor it privately, then write a note to your mate expressing your gratitude.
Hang onto your happiness. Add variety to every change if you expect it might bring happiness or if it already did. And use appreciation to prevent increasing aspirations from making you miss out on what you’ve got.