Is it worth staying in a marriage that makes you unhappy? That question has generated more than a little heat on this blog. But in order to answer that question, we have to answer an even deeper one: Does happiness actually matter? Is happiness really an important part of a meaningful life, or are other things more important?

I've blogged a lot about why parents' happiness is critical for children's happiness. But that raises the question of why we should even make happiness such a priority for kids in the first place. Any reader of this blog knows that, by the way I define happiness, I think it is critical for a meaningful life. But I realize that there are plenty of parents out there who see a meaningful life defined by accomplishments and success, not happiness and other positive emotions.

Even these people should take note: Happiness is a tremendous advantage in a world that values performance and achievement.

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On average, happy people are more successful than unhappy people at both work and love. They get better performance reviews, have more prestigious jobs, and earn higher salaries. They are more likely to get married, and once married, they are more satisfied with their marriages.

Happy people also tend to be healthier and live longer. In her groundbreaking research on positivity, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that positive emotions:

  • Broaden our thinking in ways that make us more flexible, more able to see the big picture, and more creative.
  • Accumulate and compound over time, transforming us for the better by building the resources—strength, wisdom, friendship, and resilience—we need to truly thrive.
  • Are the most important ingredient in determining a person's resilience in hard times. Positive emotions help both our bodies and our minds cope with stress, challenge, and negative feelings.

Just how happy do we need to be? It turns out that among very happy people, those who are a tad less joyful than the happiest of happy actually have higher incomes, academic achievement, job satisfaction, and political participation than the happiest people. It follows that those with some feelings of discontentment—whether it is dissatisfaction with the status quo, or an inclination to improve things–are probably more motivated towards action and, therefore, success. At work and in civic life, the desire for something better sets us in motion—to elect a new leader, to secure a better job, to negotiate a raise.

But it also turns out that uber-happy people tend to have more friends and be luckier in love. Dissatisfaction with an intimate partner or friend isn't often a big relationship strengthener. In fact, evaluating your partner in an ultra-positive way—perhaps even thinking they are more wonderful than they actually are—makes for a happier romantic union. Although I now think I might be overly romanticizing her marriage, I had thought that the marriage of the friend I blogged about here bore this research out. I like to remember how at her wedding shower she said with conviction, "Imagine how many girls around the world are going to fall to their knees in agony the day Jeff gets married?" She really felt it to be true. Nearly 15 years and two kids later, I asked her if she still felt the same way. Her response—given to me well before their marital meltdown last week: "Well, look at him! Who doesn't think he is super hot?! And he HAS embodied everything I always knew he had in him."

Although she certainly hasn't been romanticizing Jeff or their marriage lately, she'd be the first to say that her marriage is happier when she does emphasize his strengths. In other words, when she sees the positive in Jeff and their marriage and plays that up, she feels happily married. Clearly this isn't always possible, nor is it always a recommended practice when deliberately semi-delusional thinking keeps someone in a relationship they'd be better off out of.

However, love and romance aren't enough : knowledge of our partner's "specific traits" also needs to enter the picture. When we have a good understanding of our partner's strengths and weaknesses, and we accept those traits rather than feeling dissatisfied with them, our partnerships are likely to thrive. We aren't surprised when our partners aren't perfect, but instead we love them in spite of, or even because of, their imperfections.

The takeaway: to be truly happy, we can strive to appreciate—and maybe even exaggerate—the good in our relationships. This isn't blind love, but a combination of knowing and adoring. Contentment with and acceptance of the people around us is critical for our ultimate happiness, and so we need to teach our children to nurture—perhaps even romanticize—their most important relationships.

All of this is to say that happiness is not a fluffy or frivolous notion; it is the most important thing we can foster in ourselves and our children, both for its own value and for its contributions to other things we value, such as professional and social success.

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Selected References

Cooper, M. L., and M. S. Sheldon. "Seventy Years of Research on Personality and Close Relationships: Substantive and Methodological Trends over Time." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70, (2002): 783-812.

Diener, Ed, and Robert Biswas-Diener. Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Fredrickson, Barbara L. Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown Publishers, 2009.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: The Penguin Press, 2007.

Oishi, Shigehiro, Ed Diener, and Richard E. Lucas. "The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy?" Perspectives on Psychological Science 2, no. 4 (2007): 346-60.

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I deeply appreciate this article and the recent discussions it references. As the mom of a young child in the midst of leaving a high-conflict marriage, info about credible choices is extemely valuable. Keep it going!

PDXmums | 11:39 am, November 19, 2009 | Link


I’m enjoying your posts and appreciate getting them by e-mail.  I would love to share this on facebook, and wish you had the clickable fb icon included (because I am a full time working mom and haven’t the time to figure out if I could do it without the button!)

J.S. | 8:09 pm, November 25, 2009 | Link


J.S. – if you click “Share This” at the top of the post, a window should pop up that let’s you choose how to share: Facebook, Twitter, etc.  All those clickable icons!

Janine | 10:25 pm, November 25, 2009 | Link

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