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Does Marriage Make Us Happier?

April 20, 2011 | Walking the Talk | 0 comments

Or are happy people more likely to marry?

Perhaps because I’m divorced, I wonder a lot about whether I’d be happier if I were married.

Admittedly, I’m already a very happy person; I pretty much max out most happiness scales (like these, here). But I’ve made a career out of becoming an ever-happier person—and teaching my children how to do the same—by doing all the things that research suggests makes people happier. And so, I can’t ignore one of the biggies: Marriage.

As annoying to divorced and never-married singles everywhere as it is, mountains of research shows that being married has pretty large positive effects on husbands and wives. I’ve been reviewing all this research in preparation for a webcast and seminar I’m doing with Fred Luskin at the end of this month about the “Science of Great Romantic Relationships.” Married people tend to be happier, more satisfied with their lives, and less depressed. They tend to be healthier, too.

In a way, this makes perfect sense. Marriage is, for many, a tried and true way to feel less lonely: Commit to someone for the rest of your life, and hopefully you’ve gained a constant companion. (And, hopefully, their presence is positive!) 

Avoiding loneliness is a great way to feel happier and less depressed; our social ties predict our health and happiness. (If this is news to you, and you’re interested in the science around this, I highly recommend you read the “health and happiness” chapter of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone.)

But then again, I’m always citing research in my talks that shows happy people are more likely to marry. So which is it?

Does marriage make people happy, or do happy people get married? 

Fortunately there was a study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics a few years ago with that exact title. Researchers Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey answer this question with conviction, using a study that tracked many thousands of Europeans over a 17-year period.

They found, like many researchers before them, that married people are considerably more satisfied with their lives than unmarried folks. Romantic partners that live together are also happier than singles (though not as happy as the married people).

But the answer to my question original question is this: Happy people are, in fact, more likely to get married. In other words, married people start off happier than those who remain single. (They also start off happier than the people who eventually divorce.)

I certainly fit this pattern. Although I’m a very happy person now, I was one of the more anxious people I knew at the time I got married, and anxiety is not a happiness habit. I’d guess my life satisfaction score at the time I got married would have resembled the average scores of married people who would later divorce.

So where does that leave me now? I’m happy. And so, even at the age of 39, this makes me more likely, statistically speaking, to marry again.

This isn’t bad news for me, because marriage is still one of those things that is likely to make me even happier than I already am. That is because not all of the “happiness gap” between single people and married people can be accounted for by how happy people start off, before they ever marry. Even after taking into account how happy people are before they marry, marriage still does increase the odds that we are healthier and happier than if we remain single.

Where does this leave you? It’s easy to get discouraged by some of this research: If you’re not an especially happy person, does that mean you’re not likely to get married—and receive the extra happiness boost that marriage might provide?

But if you’ve been reading this blog and become at all familiar with the science of happiness, you know there’s more to the story than that. Our happiness level isn’t just a fact of life; a significant chunk of it is under our control.

So here’s yet another reason to start practicing happiness habits: They’ll increase your odds of getting happily hitched, if that is what you want.

***

Interested in learning about the science of great romantic relationships?  Please join Fred Luskin and me for a daylong workshop (and webinar, if you aren’t local).  Come with your partner, if you’ve got one, or come alone: this will be a very practical workshop designed to give you fun and simple tools to improve your love life.  More information here.

***

© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Manufacturing Happiness

April 13, 2011 | Walking the Talk | 0 comments

Ways to feel happy after we feel sad.

If your kids are feeling sad, should you tell them to “put on a happy face” despite it all?

Faking happiness often makes us feel worse, as I reported last week and in this post “Fake it till you make it.” But there are loads of ways to help our kids (and ourselves!) move on from bad feelings. (Before you try this at home, though, please read last week’s posting about how to accept and deal with the negative feelings that you ultimately want to move past. Skip part one at your own peril.)

• Have a DANCE party. Putting on some music you enjoy and dancing around is a research proven way to feel good.

• Find a way to LAUGH. My kids like to watch funny animal videos (check these out) for quick laughs. Laughter lowers stress hormones (even the expectation of laughter can do this) and elevates feel-good beta-endorphins and the human growth hormone.

Christine Carter

SLEEP it off. Sometimes, we have a hard time recovering because grief and other negative emotions can be so draining. Taking a nap—or just hitting the hay early for the night—can work wonders.

• Take a WALK. When we’ve been really angry or had a “fight or flight” response, physical activity helps clear the adrenaline out of our system. And like happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky says: Exercise may just be the best short-term happiness booster we know of.

PLAY with some FRIENDS. This is my go-to feel-better solution (maybe because my friends make me laugh). In this case, seek friends out not to tell them all the reasons why you’ve been feeling badly, but rather to have some fun. The idea is to goof around a little.

• Practice GRATITUDE. Feeling and expressing gratitude makes most people feel happier and more satisfied with their lives; it also comes with the added benefit of bringing a larger perspective to the picture. Say your son was feeling down about a baseball game where he didn’t play well and his team lost. Making a list of things he feels grateful for—clean air to breathe, hot showers, enough food, perhaps—can make the bum game suddenly seem insignificant.

• Give out some HUGS. Dacher Keltner’s studies show that touch is the primary language of compassion, love, and gratitude—all positive emotions. Read all about the way that hugs make us feel better in Keltner’s terrific book, Born to Be Good, and in this essay.

• Find some INSPIRATION. Elevation, awe, and inspiration are some of my favorite positive emotions. This video of Libby Sauter is instant inspiration to me and my kids. Many videos of tightrope walkers give me goosebumps, but this one makes me cry (in a good way, of course, though this could be confusing to kids if what we are trying to do is feel better). The music, the nature, the fact that Libby is so surrounded by her friends—how could I not feel elevated?

Notice that none of these things are the numbing behaviors described the Brene Brown video in this post. We are moving on rather than dulling and denying; we’ve already felt the bad feelings, and now we are letting them go.

We adult humans have a long list of ways to avoid feeling bad in the first place, of ways to dull the pain. We drink alcohol and take drugs; we overeat and gossip; we have affairs and go shopping for things we don’t need; we keep ourselves too busy to feel anything; we compulsively check our phones and email and Facebook. These are not happiness habits, and they are less necessary when we’ve already accepted our negative emotions and moved on.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely once said, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Cheers to the new day, or just the new hour! What do you do to start a new, or to feel better? What helps your children do so?

© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Watching the Crisis in Japan: Feeling Good While Others Suffer

March 23, 2011 | Walking the Talk | 0 comments

Compassion is a positive emotion—just like happiness.

Let me preface this post by saying that I know that writing that the crisis in Japan could be a way, ironically, to boost our own personal feelings of gratitude or happiness risks seeming insensitive, or worse, just callous. I would rather that we all feel grateful for other reasons, and I feel deeply sad about what is happening.

My kids feel sad and worried, too. This post is about how I’ve helped them make sense of it all, how I’ve helped them balance out the negative emotions that they are feeling with positive ones.  What they learn will help them be resilient—rather than overwhelmed, or just plain petrified—in the face of other disasters.

“What we do at the individual level really does affect the global environment.” “What we do at the individual level really does affect the global environment.” from Tom Shadyac’s new documentary, “I Am.”

The easiest thing to do, I realize, is not to do anything at all. Just tell ourselves that our children are too young to understand—to turn off the television, turn over the newspaper, deny that something horrific is happening outside the cozy walls of our not-affected homes.

But when we ignore or deny another person’s pain (or another country’s), we miss an opportunity to feel good. Yes, you read that right: Compassion is a complex positive emotion, and when we feel it, our well-being often improves.

When we witness suffering and compassion, our vagus nerve fires. While this might sound scary, an active vagus nerve is actually a quick ticket to well-being. When our vagus nerve is activated, we feel calm. Our heart rate slows, and our immune system is enhanced. That’s something to think about: Sharing another person’s suffering can even make us healthier.

So my best advice in the face of the crisis in Japan is not to shield your kids from the suffering of others, in order that they might feel compassion.

And then, without delay, mobilize. We feel better when we act to help others. Kids can develop a much healthier response to suffering if they’re given a constructive way to act on their feelings of compassion; otherwise, they might feel panicky and helpless. Just because this particular crisis is half a world away does not mean that we are powerless to help. My children are doing two things in particular to aid people in Japan.

First, they are raising money. We are hosting a pizza-and-movie party, and charging our guests to attend. All proceeds go to help provide food and shelter to Japanese families who are now homeless. And the whole party—from planning to clean up to making the actual donation—is being handled, with my support, by my 8 and 10 year old.

Second, they are sending their loving thoughts to children abroad. At their school, a room has been set up for kids to make origami cranes as a way to express their compassion and concern. At home, we light a candle at dinnertime on behalf of all those who need our compassion. We hope for food and supplies and shelter, for the success of rescue and relief efforts. We know from studies of loving-kindness meditation that sending good thoughts and well-wishes to those who need it can make us feel more connected and secure.

There are other reasons that cultivating compassion in the face of a tragedy makes us feel good. Compassion often leads us to three other very potent positive experiences:

1. Gratitude. As we feel for tsunami victims huddling up on the hard floors of refugee centers, it’s OK—maybe even inevitable—that we also feel a sense of gratitude for our own warm bed.

2. Inspiration. Watching my children brainstorm ways that they can help tsunami victims fills my heart, and inspires me to find other ways to help as well.

3. A Helper’s High. In the movie “I AM,” a documentary (featuring Greater Good’s own Dacher Keltner) about ways that we can improve the ills that plague our world, one of the experts talks about how helping others often leads directly to feelings of being uplifted or elevated.  Other researchers have described a similar phenomenon that they call “helper’s high”—positive feelings that can border on elation. Others suffer, we feel compassion, and we are moved to help. When we do help, we often experience powerful positive feelings.

Inspiration. Elevation. Gratitude. Love. Compassion. These emotions, to me, are all particular forms of happiness; they are the very foundation of a happy life. And I believe that those of us who have not been directly affected by the still-deepening crisis in Japan—not to mention the crises in Egypt, Libya, New Zealand, and throughout the globe—have a responsibility to ourselves and our children to feel these positive emotions.

What good is our good fortune if we don’t feel gratitude for the safety of our children or the food on our table?

***
Check out the I AM movie trailer!

© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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