As some of you know, I just returned from Egypt where, among other things, I gave three talks for the public in bookstores. How to be happier is a topic of great interest…Dr. Martin Seligman, the chief architect of happiness in the field of psychology, is a fund of wisdom on happiness…..let’s look at what he might counsel Jane, as she contemplates her situation….

“Do you think the mayor would marry them on the beach?  My daughter wants her wedding on the 78th Street beach where she swam as a child but I feel silly asking the mayor because I have never met her. But I guess I will swallow my pride and ask her because, after the mess of our lives in the last five years, I really want my daughter to have a happy marriage.” The wise, warm brown eyes with the crinkly corners looked worn out.  I knew that Jane was simultaneously reeling from her divorced husband’s recent marriage to a woman five years older than her daughter, and planning her daughter’s wedding at their summer home in Avalon.  

Jane gathered herself up and continued. “But what is a happy marriage anyway?  I mean, when Ray and I married in 1950, I thought we would celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary this summer. I thought we had a happy marriage until the day he told me he was leaving four years ago. I was shocked. Leaving?  How could he be leaving?  All this time I thought we were happy!” Her voice carried outrage and disbelief. Unless I could help Jane move on, she would remain locked in fury at her ex-husband, making her daughter’s wedding unpleasant for all who attended. We had May and June to prepare for a July wedding with huge reception at a local yacht club.

Affluence is no guarantee of happiness. Like Jane, a surprising number of summer residents are shocked to find their spouse is deeply unhappy in the marriage. To help us all prevent this tragedy from plaguing others, I reviewed current thinking on happiness in coupling. 

What does it mean to be a happy couple?  Positive psychology tells us that happiness is inside each person. We know we are happy if and when we feel it. But does psychology tell us how to create happiness? We know that we need to practice happiness daily by leading lives that enable us to feel glad much of our waking time. Some of us only aim for absence of negative, but most of us love feeling happy. And we can teach skills that enable individuals and couples to feel happier. 

Jane’s surprise is her denial. As she reflects, she says that Ray tried to tell her of his discontent by going  “on strike,” refusing to talk to Jane for days until he ultimately took distance. She reported that they began to feel more like housemates than lovers, but she assumed that was normal for a “seasoned” marriage. Ray told Jane that, one day, “something snapped inside” and he made carefully laid plans to leave but only informed her on his way out because he knew it was final. He told her he had suffered years of marital unhappiness; saw no point in getting help because Jane refused to listen to him. The initial love wore out from ignorance about how to solve conflicts. It happens daily. 

Unlike Jane and Ray, happy couples are open to learning how to skillfully couple, seeking education and therapy to develop happiness techniques. Martin Seligman reports that we need to develop three areas to insure happiness in our lives.   We need to:

1.      Get pleasure from our days: building in small pleasures not only acts to decrease depression and anxiety, but also creates many moments to look forward to with our partners and alone.

2.      Engage vibrantly with other people: Selecting people to make and stay in contact with gives a foundation of interpersonal bonding that helps us feel satisfied.

3.      Derive meaning from our activities.  Choosing activities that we think are important to us and to others insures that we will benefit from our choices.

To see how you and your partner are doing, ask yourself whether you and your partner know how to…

•        Clear the air 

•        Decide how to spend money

•        Fend off unwanted family visits

•        Manage sickness in kids 

•        Celebrate happy holidays and summers

•        Convey love daily through smiles, chats, hugs, special dinners, bed time

•        Create daily-protected partner time regardless of your hectic lives

To Consider: Happiness is not only the result of good mental health hygiene, it promotes wellbeing. And wellbeing is the reason we love being alive.  How can you be happier this spring?  Will you make time to feel happier?  Why? Why not?

To Read: Martin Seligman. Authentic Happiness. 2002. NY: The Free Press



Norris Clark