Are you positive? (part 1)

(6 of 8 in a series for National Marriage Week)

Illustration by jaylopezWhen I teach marriage workshops, I usually begin with a question: “Why are you here?”  Often, the answers are some variation on wanting to be happier in marriage by improving the relationship.

I know that some of us, as Christians, are suspicious of the language of “happiness,” and doubly suspicious of psychology.  So at the risk of completely undermining my credibility, let me say this: there is much that is useful for us to learn from the psychology of happiness.

Recent decades have seen the growth of “positive psychology,” in which researchers and therapists alike have swapped a negative focus on fixing what’s broken for a positive focus on encouraging what works.  This is not “the power of positive thinking,” but positive doing, based on the rigorous scientific study of what makes people happy.

Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky breaks the predictors of happiness into three general categories.  The first is circumstances.  Think of all the ways we might complete the sentence, “If only ___, then I would be really happy.”  A better job, more money, a bigger house, a change in status, a new relationship?  Yes, such things can make us happier.  But they only account for 10% of the happiness pie.  Ten percent.  That’s it.

The largest slice of the pie, as demonstrated by research with human twins, is genetic inheritance.  Our genes account for fully half of the pie.  In other words, we all tend to have a “happiness set point”: some people are more predisposed toward positive emotion than others, right from birth.  Circumstances may bump us up (getting a raise) or down (getting laid off) temporarily, but over time, we tend to adapt and return to some personal baseline.

That still leaves a full 40% for what Lyubomirsky calls intentional behaviors: the things we do to pursue important goals and values.  Positive psychologists have been rediscovering the importance of virtue and character, not just in achieving happiness per se, but flourishing (see also these works by Chris Peterson and Jonathan Haidt).

In other words: if you want a happier marriage, what are you doing about it, and why?

Here’s the reason for my asking the “Why are you here?” question.  Many workshop participants are searching for more happiness in their relationships, and are hoping that I’ll give them a couple of helpful suggestions toward that end.  But what if the suggestions “don’t work”?  Oh, I tried the listening thing.  Felt weird, and my spouse just scoffed at me.  Guess that’s the end of that. 

Is it?

The question isn’t whether good listening will make you (or your relationship) happier.  The question is whether good listening represents the kind of person you want to be.  As I’ve suggested in earlier posts, it can be one way Christian spouses commit to the cultivation of humility.  That’s the kind of intentional behavior that leads to flourishing.