Happiness does not come automatically to anyone in any area of life. Because of sin our default is sadness, and that can only be overcome by intentional activity. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “There is no happiness without action.”
Take marriage for an example. A German study that followed 1,761 people for 15 years through their single years and into married life found that “people were no happier during the years after marriage than before marriage, and the average ‘marriage boost’ in happiness lasted for only two years.”
Markus and Roland
However, there were some significant differences in some people’s experiences of marriage. In The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky highlighted Markus and Roland, two participants who married while the study was going on.
Markus’s happiness increased more than average when he got hitched, and eight years later he is still happier being married (just declining a tiny bit from his high point) than when he was single. Roland, on the other hand, ended up less happy during the first two years of marriage and has become even less happy in the five years since (p. 65).
What made the difference? Lyubomirsky explains:
Markus didn’t want the effects of marriage to “wear off”; he didn’t want to adapt to the rewards of marriage and take it for granted. So he decided to dedicate himself to be the best husband he could be and not take his wife and their relationship for granted. He consciously remembers to say, “I love you,” to bring her flowers, to initiate plans, trips, and hobbies, to take an interest in his wife’s challenges, successes, and feelings (p. 65).
In contrast, Roland was disappointed at the outset that matrimony did not live up to his idealistic expectations and since then has failed to observe the slow and steady deterioration of his relationship.
Scientists have found that we tend to adapt to every positive change in our lives. Whether it’s marriage, a better job, a bigger house, a sports victory, etc., the initial boost of happiness and well-being fades and the better life becomes the new normal.
However, what Markus and Roland teach us is that although we usually adapt to happy improvements in our lives, we can inhibit or slow down the adaptation process with determined action.
For example, Markus “tried to inhibit adaptation to his marriage by actively and creatively behaving in ways that preserved his and his wife’s love and affection for each other,” a strategy that we can learn from in every area of life.
Newly-weds, beware of this danger, and take action to avoid it. Well-worn-weds, understand what’s happened, and take action to unadapt to one of God’s greatest gifts to you. By God’s grace, a renewed and ever-renewing marriage can become the new normal.