How of Happiness

The scientific pursuit of happiness

The Paradox of Positivity: Are Some of Us Being Too Positive About Our Spouses?

Can one be too happy? Too positive? Too forgiving?

Can one be too happy? Too positive? Too grateful? Too forgiving?

Psychological scientists seldom ask such questions, let alone investigate them empirically. One exception, however, is Shige Oishi and his colleagues Ed Diener and Rich Lucas. These three researchers set out to establish the optimal level of happiness in various domains of life. What they found was intriguing. When it came to social life and social activities - for example, the likelihood that one is in a stable intimate relationship, has a good number of close friends, or does a lot of volunteering - the happier, the better. Those who scored a "10" on a 10-point happiness scale were the ones who reported the most success when it came to their social and romantic lives. However, when it came to how much money people made, how well they did in school, or how politically active they were, it was the moderately happy group (i.e., those who scored approximately an "8") who were the most successful.

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So the optimal level of happiness turns out to be "as high as possible" when it comes to relationships but "moderately high" when it comes to work. Being deliriously happy all the time at the office may not serve our productivity very well (and might drive our colleagues to avoid us). However, apparently, we prefer our friends and spouses to be extremely happy. A line of research on idealization in relationships is consistent with this view, showing that the most satisfied couples are those whose members see one another more positively than they really are.

It's not surprising then that marriage and family therapists routinely teach couples to think positive thoughts about each other. For example, in marriage counseling, you might be encouraged to explain your husband's misdeeds in charitable ways (e.g., "He only screamed at me in front of the neighbor because he'd had a trying day"), and you might be discouraged to count how many times this week he criticized or snubbed you. Unfortunately, this kind of therapy isn't effective for approximately 50% of couples. Why? Scientists conjecture that the most troubled couples need to take note of how much they have been blaming and rebuffing one another. They need to observe when they are being neglectful, scornful, or unkind. In short, even when monitoring or acknowledging our problems makes us feel bad, if our marriage is in trouble, we need to do it anyway. Otherwise, we would miss the opportunity to address those problems.

So, when should we sweat the small stuff in our relationships and when should we not? The truth is that there are times when the small stuff may not be so small after all. Sometimes when we downplay an argument, overlook a sting, or sweep our hurt feelings under the rug too quickly, we may end up disregarding a major problem surfacing in our marriage and allow the problem to snowball. On the other hand, researchers have found that couples who are generally happy or who have only minor or infrequent problems do benefit when they make positive attributions about one another, hold high expectations, and don't monitor hurts or slights. But couples who have major problems show the opposite pattern. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you're in an unhappy marriage, your relationship may ultimately be better off if you draw fewer sanguine inferences from your spouse's bad behavior, if you hold fewer positive expectations about him or her, and if you actually keep track of times you have hurt each other.

In Poor Richard's Almanack, the incomparable Ben Franklin wrote, "Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, and half shut afterwards."

He was right, but only to a point.

[Note: More to come on this subject and many others in my upcoming book, The Prepared Mind.]

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness.

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