Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series
David Myers, PhD, author of The Pursuit of Happiness, says there are four inner traits (based on dozens of studies) that predispose positive mental attitudes and lead to more happiness and feelings of wellbeing. These traits are self-esteem, sense of personal control, optimism, and extraversion.
- Self-Esteem. Prisons are full of individuals who have high self-esteem, as the saying goes, and many of us have focused too much on building self-esteem in children at the expense of helping them build character. However, one’s level of self-esteem is important to wellbeing. Importantly, having low self-esteem is linked with psychological disorders, such as depression. Individuals with low self-esteem may feel unlovable, untalented, or unworthy of a great life. Clearly these feelings will not assist us on our road to happy lives and happy marriages. Having high self-esteem is linked with wellbeing. A University of Michigan study showed “the best predictor of general life satisfaction is not satisfaction with family life, or income, but satisfaction with self.
Too much self-esteem or self-bias can be a problem. Myers says experiments show must of us accept more responsibility for our good deeds than for bad, and for successes more than failures. We credit outside forces to our failures and our own merits for our successes. This is also true for marital successes and failures. “Compared to happily married people, unhappy couples exhibit far greater self-serving bias by blaming the partner when problems arise.” Divorcing people are 10 times more likely to blame the spouse for the breakup than to blame themselves.
We all have insecurities. As spouses, we have great power to either build our partners up or make them feel weak and insecure. Still, most people have a reasonably high opinion of themselves. The healthiest self-esteem is “positive, yet realistic” and includes feeling accepted.
- Personal Control. When people feel more in control of their destiny, they tend to be happier and more satisfied with life, and vice versa. Those who feel they influence the direction of their lives tend to achieve more in school, cope better with stress, and live more happily. Increasing people’s control, for example, making decisions about health care, environment or personal decisions, can improve their health and wellbeing, says Myers.
Within our marriages, it’s important that both spouses understand we influence the relationship quality through how we act and react. It’s when people decide they have no power to make things better that they give up on the marriage. Setting personal and professional goals and using our time effectively helps give us a sense of control and accomplishment.
- Optimism. Optimists are healthier and have stronger immune defenses. They are happier, too. If we internalize bad events and display pessimism, we are more prone to illness. Studies have shown that those who are most pessimistic are more prone to colds, sore throats and flu, and that optimists recover more quickly from cancer and heart surgery.
When optimists have setbacks, they try another approach to find success. I would guess that married optimists are more successful, then, if they are using new approaches rather than blaming themselves or their partner. Optimistic people have hope that things will improve. However, with too-high expectations, optimists can be disappointed while pessimists with too-low expectations can be pleasantly surprised. Complicated? Not really.
Pollyannaish optimism goes too far, with people feeling invulnerable and taking too many risks. In addition, we must avoid blaming people for getting sick or having failures “because they weren’t thinking positively enough.” The best combination, says Myers, is to have “ample optimism to provide hope, with a dash of pessimism to prevent complacency, and enough realism to discriminate those things we can control from those we cannot.” (Think: Serenity Prayer)
- Extraversion. As an introverted person married to an extrovert, I wanted to learn more about this one. Studies show sociable, outgoing people report greater happiness and satisfaction with life. They are more likely to get married, find good jobs, make close friends, and have more social ties.
I know from reading other research that social ties are a key to wellness as we age. So whether we are married or single, outgoing or introverted, we need improve and increase our ties to others if we want to be happier and healthier. Joining a book club or a church group or socializing with other married people can improve our personal and marital happiness.
You may be wondering if you can control these four internal traits or if you are primarily born the way you are. Researchers find we do tend to have basic dispositions that we carry through our lives. Angry children are more likely to become angry adults, for example. But there are plenty of examples of unhappy, troubled children who grow into successful, conscientious, happy adults.
“We may be products of our past, but we also are architects of our future,” says Myers, who adds that personality is NOT programmed like eye color. We can even use behavior to help change our attitudes if we are proactive and thoughtful. “Don’t worry that you don’t feel like it. Fake it. Pretend self-esteem. Feign optimism. Simulate outgoingness,” he says. It sounds like being phony, but research shows the phoniness subsides and the new behaviors and attitudes become more comfortable and internalized.
When you’re in a sour mood and the phone rings, you often fake a cheerful greeting and talk to your friend. After the call, you actually feel better. Act as if you’re wildly in love with your spouse, and you just might start feeling that way.
Which of these traits do you possess? Do you think they influence your happiness level?
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