If romantic comedies made in Hollywood are any measure, a relationship with the right person is a fast track to happiness. And if living the American dream – at least by 21st century standards – is the pathway to happiness, it turns on things like our zip code, make and model of the vehicle we drive, and status-conferring labels on our possessions. But the evidence, based on a current and growing body of research, points to a different set of facts about this essential pursuit. Super-size goals – for fame, fortune, high-status positions or high-priced possessions – do not, according to scientific evidence, actually make us happy in the long term. High-quality relationships do. But that fact is just one piece of the happiness puzzle. The other pieces have more to do with what we bring to the relationship than the other way around.
The secret to happier relationships lies not so much in who we are with but in who we are becoming. And we can become more evolved and skillful versions of ourselves through hard work in many ways analagous to the way we play games that involve ever-increasing degrees of difficulty and demands for skill to keep it interesting. “There are many ways to be happy,” writes Jane McGonigle, whose innovations in online games includes those desiged to improve real lives and solve real problems, “but we cannot find happiness. No object, no event, no outcome or life circumstance can deliver real happiness to us. We have to make our own happiness – by working hard at activities that provide their own reward.” In her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and TED talk McGonigle makes the case that we get better at relationships in the same way that interactive online players improve their game: through each individuals’ deep engagement with working toward self-directed goals that lead to repeated experiences of well-being and reward. Real life in the modern world, she argues, often does not supply the structures for intrinsic rewards and directs our focus to the external ones that are, in reality, short-lived. This leads to a kind of chronic sense of disappointment that easily bleeds into our daily experience of relationships. The love affair that once endowed magic onto the most ordinary of daily activities becomes, like everything, ordinary, after a time. Romantic relationships that start out the center of our happiness can turn into the source of our dissatisfaction.
A genuine pursuit of happiness, then, is the pursuit of rich, creative experiences that stretch our abilities rather than simply satisfy desire or reroute uncomfortable emotions. “Character development does bring about greater self-awareness and hence greater happiness,” writes C. Robert Cloninger of the Center for Well-Being at Washington University at St. Louis. His research finds that well-being goes up, symptoms of depression and other emotional disorders are diminished, relationships deeper and more enduring for individuals who work to develop what he terms “mental self-government.” The only barriers to engaging in the work of self-mastery are within ourselves, and we can start by overcoming ways of thinking that have us looking “out there” for a reason to try. Cloninger recommends focusing on becoming more internally directed than externally controlled, more cooperative and compassionate than competitive, more intuitive and thoughtful toward others.
Stanford University researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D, – author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach To Getting The Life You Want and The Myths of Happiness -concurs that while the ups and downs of external events and changing circumstances can certainly throw cold water on our best efforts to feel good about life, there are mental and emotional habits we can cultivate which produce “sustainable happiness.” The more direct the effort involved to acquire healthy mental habits or psychological strengths, the happier people tend to be.
The best part of this new learning is that is clearly shows that while there is so much about life that we cannot control, we have a powerful role in improving the quality of our interactions with others. The return on investment is immeasurable when we dedicate energy and full-throttle engagement to the task of developing ourselves from the inside out.