Marriage is not about prioritizing happiness.
I learned this while spending five months traveling Europe with my husband shortly following our wedding. As someone who’s long been an advocate of travel, it was fitting that my fiancé affirmed his love for me not with diamonds but with a European travel guide and plane tickets to the other side of the world.
Since our relationship’s inception, we knew we wanted to pursue a life of common goals. But it was while we were traveling that we uncovered just how much those goals meant, and that pursuing them is even more important than pursuing happiness.
Deciding to travel the world together
Of course, jetting off on a backpacking trip immediately after our wedding is not a conventional way to start a marriage. The marriage advice we found seemed to reflect the idea that a trip like ours was risky, that we were bound to find unhappiness and conflict by entering an unknown situation like traveling, and that the best thing we could do for ourselves at the start of our marriage was to keep life simple and familiar.
In our culture, an easy, stress-free life is often seen as the definition of a fulfilling life. But our culture’s definition is one that I fully disagree with.
And as it happened, we weren’t signing up for 5 months of hosteling, hiking, and lugging around heavy packs because we thought it would be easy, or even that it would always be fun. Rather, we decided to travel because we were searching for something bigger than just happiness and ease of circumstance. And it was while we were traveling that we found just that.
Conquering fear to reach for meaning
To be clear, I’m not saying that happiness is unimportant, or that it really doesn’t matter whether you’re happy or not. Rather, I think we have skewed assumptions when we’re certain that we’ll be happy once every hard thing melts away, or that we’ll find happiness by directly pursuing things that make us feel happy in the moment. In reality, happiness is a by-product of a deep, meaningful life, and we have the most meaningful experiences not when we’re shrouding ourselves from fear, but when we push past fear to discover something even greater.
Emily Esfahani Smith, author of the bestselling book The Power of Meaning, gave a Ted Talk on how pursuing happiness is not what ultimately makes people happy, or even cures that empty feeling so many of us live with.
“Many psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and ease, feeling good in the moment,” said Esfahani Smith. “Meaning, though, is deeper. Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but I came to see that seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path.”
Before our travels, we knew in a theoretical sense the deep and creative lives we wanted to live. But the dreams we had–to write, to travel, to start a business, to move somewhere we truly loved–seemed out of reach, nebulous, and certainly on the other side of fear.
Once we started traveling, however, we began to actually do the things that scared us, and began to see firsthand what it looked like to live out our dreams.
Our trip abroad instilled in us a habit of working together to think outside the box. Through beginning our shared life in such a foreign context, we began to challenge our assumptions that life would move fixedly and predictably from one stage to the next. We began to develop instead a growth-oriented mindset of creating whatever future we wanted.
Even on a smaller scale, spending our days working toward a shared goal of getting to the next city gave us a sense of shared purpose and accomplishment (not to mention the practical problem-solving skills that develop when you’re planning and executing a trip of such a scale).
The imagination for a bigger world–and the courage to get out and find our place in that world–became not a wishful dream, but the story of who we are as a married couple.
Relationships need a shared purpose
Drs. John and Julie Gottman are marriage researchers. According to their model for healthy relationships, the capstone of a good marriage is not happiness, or shared affection. It’s not even a lack of conflict. Rather, the best marriages are defined by creating shared meaning.
After our trip, my husband and I spoke to an older couple from my hometown who had been married over sixty years and spent most of their marriage farming together.
We expressed our desire to continue working together and chasing our dreams together, like we had when we decided to backpack the world.
Rather than shaking their heads or smirking at our naiveté, the couple said, “That’s the best thing you can do. We worked together throughout our whole marriage, and raised four children who each got married and are, in different ways, working with their spouses. Your marriage needs a shared purpose.”
My husband and I certainly weren’t perfect at bringing the lessons learned on our trip back with us. As the years slipped by we found ourselves drifting into separate jobs, separate lives, parallel universes.
Try as we might to fix our anxiety and discord with happiness-cures, no amount of walks, date nights, meditation apps, or Netflix binges seemed to touch the empty feeling that we were quickly slipping away from the connected people we once were.
I don’t know what brought us back around. But somehow we pulled out our book of Europe photos, and somehow we began dreaming again.
Somehow, we’ve begun to come home to our shared meaning of living creative, courageous lives.
Somehow, we began to challenge the unhelpful patterns we’d fallen into.
Somehow, we began to heal.
Our honeymoon taught us to grow together
Urging one another to become better people and pursuing new goals together has built an infinitely stronger relationship than we would have if we’d only focused on feeling happy together.
When I look back on my 5-month honeymoon, I don’t even clearly remember the times that were happiness-focused.
I’m sure we had some lovely dinners and fabulous wine, and good laughs and sweet talks like all newlyweds should.
But those don’t stand out in my mind like the time we were hiking the Alps and my husband believed I could hike further than I thought I could, and I discovered that was true.
Or the time we successfully used a map and compass to navigate in the fog, or figured out how to operate a chair lift high in the mountains.
Or the time we spent at an intentional community in France, and learned that there’s so much more to life than chasing the American Dream.
Or the night we sat on our hostel bed in Prague and promised we’d never let go of the things that had become important to us on this trip.
Like marriage, traveling is often not fun in the moment, and you shouldn’t go into it expecting constant happiness. But both travel and marriage are so deeply meaningful and contribute more to growth than anything else I know.
I don’t think you have to take a 5-month trip with your partner to pursue meaningful relationship. But do I to think it’s vital to pursue something beyond yourselves.
Whether that’s owning a business together, raising children together, volunteering together, working toward social justice together, participating in a religion together, or even just taking time each week to talk about your dreams together, growing in shared meaning will bring you more depth and satisfaction than pursuing happiness can.
I’m not committed to prioritizing happiness.
I am, however, committed to the courageous pursuit of meaning.