“It is truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” So wrote the inimitable Jane Austin in Pride and Prejudice. Whilst unknown to her at the time, the years of research that have followed do suggest that Mr Darcy was likely to have been all the happier for having entered what his neighbours believed to be this highly commendable state. Years later, Martin Seligman was able to write with some surety that “unlike money, which has at most a small effect, marriage is robustly related to happiness”. Fortunately for us readers of romantic tales, Mr Darcy achieved both money and marriage and we can therefore rest easy in his assured happiness.
Positive Psychology research shows us that relationships, especially intimate ones, are considered the best predictors of happiness, with marital status often cited as one of the most well-established of these predictors. Many of the findings relate to the range of benefits that marriage brings in terms of psychological and physical intimacy, companionship, sharing etc.
Yet love and the marital state, whilst still highly desirable in many cultures, takes more than having an old college photograph of yourself with a happy smile – it is hard to find and hard to keep. Simply put, it is hard work! Jane Austin herself never married, and judging from the number of single friends I have, it seems that the whole marriage thing is not for everyone. So having read the research on the positive aspects of the marital status, should I be concerned that my single friends are condemned to a life of negativity simply because of their personal choices or that they have yet to meet the right life partner?
ABSOLUTELY AND RESOUNDINGLY NO!
For starters, research on relationship measures indicates that the unhappiest people are those in unhappy marriages, nor is being happily married the only component of positive well-being. Instead I suggest following the maxim set out by Lucille Ball, “love yourself and everything else falls into line.” After all, having good relationships with others is affected by how good a relationship we have with ourselves. In her book, Love 2.0, Barbara Fredrickson examines love from the perspective of moments of human connectedness and the relationship between self-love and loving others, how our health, well-being and positive emotions can be enhanced when we extend our love towards all humanity – including ourselves.
Love can be gained and expressed in many ways, such as through gratitude, loyalty, passion, kindness, integrity and forgiveness. All these gifts can be found within ourselves and our character strengths and further developed through positive interventions. Furthermore the practice of loving-kindness meditation, endorsed by Fredrickson, which involves directing loving-kind thoughts towards ourselves as well as others, can help to generate a wealth of positive emotions and increased life satisfaction.
Ultimately I would suggest that love, relationships, marriage and happiness can be better understood through the words of Confucius: “To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”
This Chinese New Year, if your relatives nag at you to tie the knot soon even though it isn’t on your cards yet, update them on what you’ve been doing for yourself that makes you happy. Marriage can wait – after all, if you’re happy, they’re happy, right?
Argyle, M. (2001). The Psychology of Happiness. New York : Taylor & Francis
Diener, E., Gohm, C.L., Suh, E.M., Oishi, S., 2000. Similarity of the relations between marital status and subjective well-being across cultures. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology 31(4), 419–436.
Dush, C. M. K. & Amato P. R. (2005). Consequences of relationship status and quality for subjective well-being. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(5), 607-627.
Fredrickson, Barbara (2013). Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. New York: Hudson Street Press.
Myers, D.G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55, 56-67.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Style, C. (2011). Brilliant Positive Psychology. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
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