I had the good fortune of meeting a lovely elderly woman who was celebrating her 50thwedding anniversary. Of course I had to ask:
“What’s the secret to staying happily married as long as you two?”
“Secret?” She laughed. “There’s no secret. A happy marriage is made up of two happy people. We’re just happy people, I guess.”
From the sparkle in her eyes and the laugh lines etched into her skin, I could see the truth of her statement.
As I excused myself to let the lineup of well-wishers behind me have their turn, I smiled to myself at what she’d said. Just be happy. How easy it sounded!
But then the face of a client I’d spoken to earlier in the week flashed before me.
This woman’s face was young and smooth, but her eyes were red from crying. She was desperate to know how to create happiness in her relationship.
“I don’t know what to do to make him happy. I’ve tried and I’ve tried. It would be so different if he made an effort, too. If he tried to make me happy, just a little bit. But I do everything, and he does nothing.”
She believed what most people believe:
That the point of relationships is to make each other happy.
But is it?
What if we’ve got it all wrong?
Research shows the boost in happiness provided by falling in love and getting married doesn’t last. About two years after the wedding, the couple adapts to their new circumstances. They go back to feeling just about as happy as they used to feel.
We’ve all got a baseline level of happiness. That friend of yours who’s always happy will probably wear that smile until the end of her life, even should some misfortune befall her. That friend of yours who’s never happy will probably always be a bit of a grump, even if she wins the lottery.
You can’t shift your baseline level of happiness by winning a fortune or marrying your dream man. It’s a function of your outlook, not your external circumstances.
Or, as I explain it:
Happiness isn’t what you have. Happiness is how you see the world.
So, when a client comes to my office expecting her partner to make her happy—or expecting to be able to make him happy—I have my doubts.
I explain that there’s a better goal than making your partner happy. In fact, if you pursue this goal, you’ll have a happier relationship than if you spent all your time trying to make your partner happy.
Want to know what it is?
It’s adopting your very own happiness practice.
It is true that two happy people are likely to have a happy relationship. But it’s not true that you either are a happy person or you’re not. You can train yourself to be happier.
No matter how low your starting point, you can shift it through deliberate, conscious effort.
But you have to want to.
Some people believe that the way they are is the way they are. They enjoy being dark, or cynical, or the voice of reason. They’ve been that way for so long that they take pride in sidestepping joy. They look for the thorn in every blessing.
When a woman falls in love with a man like that, she feels excited with the hope that she might be the first woman ever to make him happy. She’ll turn his life around. He’ll start seeing rainbows and flowers and kittens.
But it doesn’t work that way. She can’t change him.
She can boost his happiness temporarily, but it will fade as he returns to the way he was before.
He must decide to change. Inspired by her, he very well might.
And that brings us to the idea of a happiness practice.
When you decide that you want to be happier, no matter what is going on in your life, you affect everyone around you.
Your positive nature and good cheer rubs off on those you love. They feel happier because you’re happy.
There’s a scientific explanation for the way our moods become contagious. It has to do with mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons mimic what they’re seeing. Watch someone crying, and you’ll feel sad. Watch someone laughing, and your spirits will lift.
So you can influence the happiness of the one you’re with, but not in the way you think.
You’re not responsible for his happiness, and he’s not responsible for yours. But you can both enjoy exploring happiness together. Relationships are about learning to be happy alongside one another, not because of one another.
Always on your side,