he extent and depth of our own friendships could be a real measure of our own happiness.
In a January article in Psychology Today Professor Susan Kraus Whitbourne lists “The 9 Most Common Relationship Mistakes.” These include both taking one’s partner for granted to an unhealthy degree and taking one’s partner too little for granted, as well as taking one’s partner too seriously and always questioning the relationship.
This is some of the most recent advice about relationships that reflects some constant, nagging feeling most people in our culture have come to have that something isn’t right with their relationship and that things should be better. Books, articles, essays, and blogs offer often very good advice, and sell well because it’s assumed that people are insecure about how things are going.
In fact, there’s quite an industry out there based on the hope that we don’t feel that things are going well. There is money to be made because people aren’t happy in relationships.
The Declaration of Independence proclaims that we have the right to pursue happiness. So, pursuing it especially in our relationships is an American obsession.
After all, happiness is an emotion we all want to feel. So it makes sense that we’re all supposed to wonder: But am I really happy in this relationship.
As is true for most feelings, we sort of believe that we’ll know happiness when we feel it. But the more we examine our happiness, the less we’re convinced that we are happy.
Relationships, somehow, we’ve been told, are really supposed to make us happy. Certainly, being in one is supposed to be better than not.
But that common assumption is without real evidence. Psychologists question the studies that are cited to prove it. As one researcher has pointed out after looking at studies that actually were biased to prove marriage makes one happier: “The combined results of 18 long-term studies showed that getting married did not make people any happier and that satisfaction with the relationship actually decreased over time. The only hint of a benefit was a brief increase in life satisfaction around the time of the wedding, which soon went away.”
So, looking for or examining a relationship in terms of happiness, might actually keep us from being happy in a relationship. Psychologist Albert Ellis claimed it was irrational to suggest that happiness was caused by external circumstances such as having the right relationship.
Rather, Ellis observed, happiness depends on how we interpret the events of our lives. And since human beings are good at adjusting to their circumstances no matter what they experience, they can have a general level of happiness, independent of their experiences.
That means, questioning whether we are happy in a relationship already becomes a part of our interpretation of it. It already understands the relationship as not happy, or not happy enough.
So if we think that our unhappiness is due to not being in the right relationship, we’ve started in the wrong place. Instead, relationships must develop out of our already seeing our lives as generally happy.
And how does that happen? Well, there is one kind of relationship that correlates with human happiness based on the fact that we have evolved to be social animals who need to socialize.
The biggest predictor of happiness is not our coupled relationships but the extent of all our social relationships. Friendless people are consistently found not to be happy. And both middle-aged men and women have improved well-being when they have a wide circle of close friends, according to a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Carlin Flora of Psychology Today goes further in Friendfluence: “The evidence of the salutary effects of friendship is so strong and is linked so clearly to common killers like heart disease, cancer, and obesity that one of the smartest health care policies never discussed on the Senate floor could seriously be an initiative to encourage and nurture friendships.”
This not only means that the extent and depth of our own friendships could be a real measure of our own happiness. It means that the extent and depth of the friendships of someone who is a potential life partner, is just as likely to be a good measure of how much happiness they will bring into their relationship with us.