Tag Archives: Finding Happiness

How Important is Love to Happiness?

Four in five adults of all ages rate love as important to their happiness. And it turns out those in loving relationships do enjoy greater wellbeing than those who are single. (This despite our culture glorifying the endless positives of remaining unattached.) Fewer than 25 percent of unmarried adults say they are “very happy” but 40 percent of married adults say they are.

David Myers, PhD, in The Pursuit of Happiness, cites the above research and says even more important than being married is the marriage’s quality.  While women suffer more emotional disturbances in a stressed marriage than do their husbands, wives also report slightly greater happiness across all marriages. Researchers suspect this is because women find more joy in positive, close relationships than men do.

Further, most married people say their marriages are happy. Myers says three out of four in the U.S. say their spouse is their best friend. (This seems high to me, but I’d agree with it in my marriage.) And this relationship happiness carries over into their overall life happiness.

Why are married people happier? Marriage is likely to provide an enduring supportive relationship, and married people are less likely to suffer loneliness. Those who parent together may experience additional stresses, yet also receive additional rewards from their roles as parents.

While I completely agree that my marriage has made me a happier person, I also strongly believe that we as individuals control most of our happiness. When we are happy on our own, that happiness tends to bleed into our relationship. We’re more interesting to be with, more supportive and more engaging when we have a life we enjoy.

A National Opinion Research Center study found that nearly six in ten Americans who rate their marriage as very happy also rate their life as very happy.  And among those NOT in a happy marriage, only one in ten say their overall life is very happy. A bad marriage is worse than no marriage, and loneliness within marriage can be the loneliest feeling of all.

 When we are unhappy as individuals, we tend to project on our partners that they aren’t supportive enough or don’t understand our needs. But the truth may be that we are in a life transition, or have lost a loved one, or in one way or another are struggling with our life or identity. Our marriage or spouse shouldn’t have the burden of “making us happy”. Instead, we can enrich and enjoy our lives more fully because of the close, intimate relationship we share.

If you think you are unhappy in your relationship, consider that you may need to make improvements in your own individual life to improve happiness. For example, a person who feels overworked and underappreciated in their job may bring those feelings into their home and feel taken advantage of across the board.

Myers says to avoid two mistakes in thinking if you aim to have a happy marriage. First, even if you’re newlyweds, don’t take a successful marriage for granted. “Unless nurtured carefully, the relationship you counted on for love and happiness may leave you crushed, lonely, feeling like a failure, or trudging hopelessly along, resigned to your despair.” (Ouch.) Conversely, don’t be overly pessimistic saying marriages seldom last, so why should I commit, invest and work on my marriage? A positive attitude channeled by a wariness of real dangers offers the best chance at a happy relationship, he concludes.

So, is this a chicken and the egg question? “Which comes first personal or marital happiness?” I think they feed on each other, but the personal happiness ideally comes first. What do you think?

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Traits of Happy (and Happily Married) People

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

Unhappy people are less happy after marriage than happy people who marry. It’s not marriage that makes us happy or unhappy. What inner traits lead to increased happiness?

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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)

  1. 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?

Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.com

Is “No Pain, No Gain” True in Life and Relationships?

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

Many people avoid some of the richest opportunities to have lasting happiness because of fear of pain. For example, many children of divorce don’t want to risk marriage because they have lived through family breakup. Others avoid having children because they fear being bad parents or don’t want to make the necessary sacrifices to their lifestyle. Some may not want to work through a college education, because of the toil and challenge it may require. Even commitment to a church or to friends may seem too demanding. The hookup culture demonstrates that many young people don’t see a reason to devote themselves to a long-term relationship.

Taking risks and working hard can lead to deeper happiness. However, it’s more common to act on the belief that having fun leads to happiness, and avoiding pain will keep us happy.  Unfortunately, some pain or toil may be necessary in the short-term to be able to reap long-term joy.

This is true in life and marriage. For example, couples who avoid all arguments are unlikely to make it over the long haul. If they are willing to work through the smaller problems as they come up—confronting them effectively instead of avoiding them—they are more likely to be happily married in the long term. A desire to avoid confrontations will eventually create unhappiness and resentment. The easy road is often the poorly chosen one.

Even our bodies will not be healthy and happy in the long-term if we opt for an undisciplined, easy lifestyle of eating anything that gives us momentary joy and not sweating it off. Reckless spending can also bring momentary elation and long-term financial failure.

Fear and desire to avoid pain can prevent deep happiness, says Dennis Prager, author of Happiness is a Serious Problem.  He says always choosing fun activities, such as TV watching, contributes to little happiness, while working hard at a worthwhile pursuit can bring great satisfaction. To live life to its fullest, we will need to experience some suffering. Of course, every marriage also needs fun and excitement built in, but we need balance.

I’ve often heard that any marriage that isn’t improving is deteriorating, drifting without us even realizing it. Improving takes work and time, but we can be rewarded with more happiness later.

There may even be times when we “don’t feel happy” in our marriage. Research shows if we can work through that turbulent period, we are more likely to be happy down the road than if we divorce. Sometimes seeking to avoid the pain of unhappiness brings even more sorrow. Keep working, and you may be closer to victory than your realize. Many couples I have interviewed said they were certain their marriage would fail after an affair, drug addiction, losing a child and other crises. They were surprised to find a great marriage was still within reach.

Is your aim to live a life with as little pain as possible, or one that helps you fulfill your dreams? What things caused you short-term pain but long-term happiness?

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Focusing on What’s Missing in Life Can Cause You to Miss What’s There

Happy Life, Happy Marriage Series

If you’re looking at a tiled ceiling or floor and one tile is missing, your eye will be drawn to that missing tile, and you’ll continue to focus on that missing tile rather than the rest of the tiles. Dennis Prager calls this the “Missing Tile Syndrome” and says it explains why many of us focus on what is missing in our lives instead of what we have. This tendency causes us much unhappiness. Let me explain.

The problem is that in life, we will always have something missing, and even when we don’t, we may imagine a more perfect and complete life.

Sometimes a lack in ourselves may focus on what others have that we don’t. If we want a flat stomach, we notice people with flat stomachs. If we want perfect hair or radiant skin, we notice others with perfect hair or radiant skin. If we want fancy clothes, we notice others with fancy clothes. If we want to become pregnant, we see pregnant bellies everywhere. But we are creating our own unhappiness by focusing on what others have that we do not.

We frequently impose the missing tile syndrome on others as well, figuring out what trait they have that is missing rather than focusing on the traits they have that are strong. In Happiness is a Serious Problem, Prager shared that when he was seeking a mate, this was exactly what he did. After each date with a different woman, he would identify her missing trait. He’d call his friend and say he figured out the most important trait he was looking for, and it was always the one the recent date lacked—whether intelligence or attractiveness or sense of humor. It took his friend to point out his habit for him to embarrasingly realize what a destructive one it was.

I admit sometimes I focus on the attributes my children do not have (which I think are critical at the moment) rather than on the great characteristics they do have. I do it with my husband at times, and even more frequently with myself. Sometimes I wish I had more talent, other times longer legs, more patience, greater creativity—the list goes on and on.

If we are unhappy with ourselves, it’s extremely difficult to be the perfect mate for our partner. And if we are picking others apart, it’s nearly impossible for them to appear right for us at the same time.

Prager sums it up well: “It is human nature to concentrate on what is missing and deem it the Most Important Trait. Unless we teach ourselves to concentrate on what we do have, we will end up obsessing over missing tiles and allow them to become insurmountable obstacles to happiness.”

Possible Solutions
Now that we know this is a problem and realize its power in our lives, what can we do to minimize its effect? Whether you perceive something is missing in your life or in your marriage, follow these steps:

1)       Clarify what you perceive to be the missing item in your life (or marriage), or what you think may be troubling you.

2)      Decide if this missing item is central to your happiness or whether you can be happy without it. From here, you can either “get it, forget it, or replace it.”

3)      If the item is within your power to obtain, and it is central to your happiness, focus on how you might “get it.” Examples might include wanting a high school or college diploma, finding a mate, having another child, spending more time with your spouse, or moving to another state.

4)      If the item is not within your power, do your best to “forget it” or at least to try not to think about it as much. Examples might include lamenting a past failed relationship or (as in the author’s case) wishing he didn’t have to share custody of his child and see him only half time. There are items in our lives that will always bother us, but we may need to stop focusing so much attention on them and make the best of what we do have. If it bothers you that your husband doesn’t do dishes, but he’s a good husband who helps in other ways and doesn’t like to do dishes, think about forgetting that fault and moving on.

5)      Replace your missing item with something else. It reminds me of the star athletes who are injured and who go on to have successful, inspiring careers in another field. Focusing on the inability to play football would only increase unhappiness, while creating a new dream helps bring fulfillment. Similarly, I’ve known individuals who were unable to have their own children, but who used increased time devoted to nieces and nephews as a way to fill their lives with the joy of children. There can be less important repacements as well. Maybe you always dreamed of having a wife who is a great cook, and yours doesn’t enjoy cooking, but she is a generous wife and mother. Think about the reasons why you chose your wife instead. 

The solutions may not be perfect, but they can bring you closer to a happy life. You may even find the new path brings you in exciting new directions you never expected. Do you recognize the Missing Tile Syndrome in your life?

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The Formula for Unhappiness is Revealed: U = I – R

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

The images we have created from our earliest memories regarding how our lives and our marriages should be have incredible bearing on our happiness, or rather our unhappiness.

Dennis Prager, author of Happiness is a Serious Problem, says these images are so powerful “that you can almost measure your unhappiness by the difference between your images and your reality.”  U = I – R  (Amount of unhappiness equals images minus reality.)

This is a useful concept whether we are comparing our ideal career with what we currently have, our ideal body with our current body, our ideal spouse with our current spouse, our ideal family with our current family, or our ideal income with our current income.

It’s curious where and when our ideal images were constructed. Many of them may be based on childhood notions, fiction (fairytale love stories in books and movies or TV), or simply dreamed up in our own little noggins.

What is the solution to this problematic formula? Prager suggests “unhappiness can be reduced by either dropping your images and celebrating your reality or keeping your images and changing your reality.” That seems easier said than done, and neither is recommended more than the other. In fact, both may be needed. Certainly, if our reality is a positive one and we realize our expectations and ideal images are not at all realistic, then we ought to try to revise our images. On the other hand, if our reality really bites, then attempts to change that would be the better course. Many times, there may be elements of our reality we’d like to improve, but certain images that we really need to scrap.

Prager offers a poignant example from his own life, sharing that when he was growing up there were no examples of divorce, so when he married, he married for life, believing that he would achieve his image of a loving family with four children around the dinner table. When his own marriage imploded after five years, and he became a divorced father of a three-year-old child, he viewed his life as complete failure. He also failed to achieve his ideal family with four children. In time, he learned to celebrate (not just accept) his new family after remarrying and becoming a step-father to another child, and later having a third child. He was able to do this only by removing the images that he had previously held onto as mandatory for happiness.

Many of us seem to rotate our ideal images. One day we think being a successful career mom is ideal, and the next we think staying home with the children would be perfect. One day we want to be at the top of the corporate ladder, and the next we want to be successful entrepreneurs. Media and cultural influences have also shaped what we think our own bodies should look like, and what our partner should look like. Sometimes we are motivated by these images to make healthy choices toward proper diet and exercise, and sometimes we are driven to self-loathing or to point out our partner’s minor flaws.

Images are not necessarily harmful. Although I was a child of divorce, I created images for an intact, healthy family life that helped me find a mate and build my own family. Others may be inspired by positive role models in movies, books or in real life.

I think it’s helpful to ask, “Do your images help you achieve happiness, or do they ensure your unhappiness?” The answer to that question will reveal whether your images are helping or hurting you. Are they driving you to a better life, or are they making it impossible for you to be satisfied?

We may not even realize the expectations we have are incongruent. For example, I confess I don’t watch the Bachelor, but I read an article in which the current bachelor was being criticized for saying he was looking for an independent career-oriented woman, but then selecting only women who would relocate to his city and be a traditional wife. Are there men who want a wife at home cooking and cleaning, but also want her to be a working professional and bring in a good income? Sure. Are there women who want a strong, take-charge, high-level businessman, but then become upset when he’s not available to travel frequently and spend as much time at home? When our mate isn’t living up to one or more of our ideal images, we tend to think maybe they aren’t right for us after all. (Read We all married the wrong person.)

Sometimes it’s our images and expectations that may be far enough from our reality that we are preventing our happiness. Maybe our job isn’t what we would love right now, but it’s allowing us to have the kind of family life we want. Or maybe our house isn’t always spotless, but with two working parents, we realize we have to live with an occasional mess. Or maybe we realize our spouse is imperfect, just as we are. Instead of looking for the perfect marriage, maybe we should try to create some perfect moments, some perfect experiences, and some perfect memories. If we can appreciate our spouses for who they are and not who we fantasize them to be, we have a better chance of making those perfect memories.

Are there images that you’ve been holding onto that have either helped you in life or kept you from being as happy as you could be?

Photo Credit: ©Tina A./PhotoXpress.com

Can Your Mind Change Your World?

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

Entire philosophies and religions have been built upon the idea that by changing our mind, we can change our lives—that the secret to a more prosperous life is just being open to greater prosperity. That believing you have a great marriage will help you get there.

We are inundated with messages from popular psychology telling us how to achieve success without action, but with a new way of thinking (sometimes called New Age thinking). Various books offer new prescriptions. “Pull a few psychic levers, believe the best about yourself, assert yourself, and happiness will be yours,” says the tongue-in-cheek David Myers, PhD, in The Pursuit of Happiness. In fact, just today, I read a post from a counselor stating that we can indeed change our lives using the power of our minds.

I would say we can control our perception of life, and we can even make our lives considerably happier. Our minds, and even our spirits, are powerful. However, we can’t prevent disease and earthquakes or erase evil from the planet.

I would also mention that I disagree with philosophies and religious that suggest the “individual as God” mentality in which we can control the world around us. For people of faith, that is unbiblical. And for people of science, it’s unproven. Certain celebrities promote this way of thinking, and I think it’s tempting for many to think they can gain wealth and influence and achieve their dreams by sitting in their bathrooms and thinking positive thoughts. I do believe we can achieve our dreams, but we have to use our minds and our actions as well as positive thoughts.

We do know the mind can affect our bodies, sometimes dramatically. For example, the placebo effect is well-known: if people think they are taking an effective treatment, their body is more likely to heal, even if they are taking a sugar pill. If doctors can make patients believe they will become well, some of them will become well as a result, even with no other treatment. In addition, optimists have been shown to heal faster after surgery and to respond to stress better than pessimists (responding with smaller blood pressure increases). We know that relaxation, meditation and optimism promote healing, says Myers.

But research has been unable to prove that we can change the world around us with positive thinking (and draw those millions of dollars that we deserve to us)—just as we can’t change our spouse with positive thinking. However, I think that focusing on feelings of gratitude and expressing positive thoughts, while also attempting to act in a more positive manner, can indeed affect those around us, including our spouse. In other words, by “positive acting” not just positive thinking, we can start to change the world around us.

As an example, a friend recently decided to participate in a challenge called 29 Gifts, started by Cami Walker, author of the book by the same name. Each day, my friend gave some kind of gift or act of love to someone she knew, with no expectation of anything in return. You can read about her experience here in Is it Really Better to Give than to Receive? I know about this only because I was one of the recipients of a thoughtful gift and kind note that made my day. Within a month, her decision to act in a positive, loving manner had far-reaching effects for those around her, many of whom were inspired to act similarly.

My point (in life and marriage) is if we become too self-focused, we lose the point of loving those around us. It’s all well and good to try to be more positive, calm, and grateful on our own. But by expressing gratitude (in writing or verbally, or in prayer), or by giving a hug, or by taking a positive action to help our partner with something, or to just be there to listen while he or she talks, we can make a real impact and demonstrate real love. I believe this positive impact will increase our own happiness as well as the happiness of those around us.

Try it for a few days. Do something nice for someone you know, and pay attention to how it makes you feel before and after. Then do something nice for your spouse for a few days and see how it affects your relationship.

Next week, I’ll talk about how the images of how our lives and marriages “should be” can impact our happiness levels.

 Photo credit: ©.shock/PhotoXpress.com

Are Older or Younger People Happier? Men or Women? What Stage of Life is Best?

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

Do you dread certain stages of life, like old age or menopause? Are there different stages of life when we tend to be happier in life and marriage?

I’ve shared information about the U-shaped marriage, in which the active parenting years cause a decline in marital satisfaction, but an increase after the kids leave the nest.  Maggie Scarf, author of September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years encourages couples to get through the rough patches together so they can enjoy the other peak of their marriage.

But what about overall happiness and wellness—is there a certain time of life where we are more likely to be happy or distraught? For example, I’ve heard some stories about menopause being difficult on husbands and wives. We’ve also all heard stories midlife crises caused by the terrible distress of men in their 40s. Some couples spend a solid decade worrying about these impending events.

While there are certainly anecdotes that show these are real issues for some people, David Myers, PhD, says people of all ages report similar feelings of wellbeing. That includes people in middle and old age. Truthfully, he reports in his book The Pursuit of Happiness, more women view the post-menopausal and empty-nest period as a time of freedom and enjoyment of life than a time of sadness and depression. Surveys of empty nester women report greater happiness and greater enjoyment in their marriages. They even talk of a “post-launch honeymoon”. This is good news for all those dreading that time of life.

Regarding cases of midlife crises, two studies involving nearly 10,000 men and women showed “not the slightest evidence” that distress peaks anywhere in the midlife age range. Perhaps we just hear stories of things people do—buying an expensive car or going off with a younger woman—and attribute the decision to reaching a certain age. Apparently research isn’t very supportive of this conclusion. Note, the research is a bit dated, but it was done over a long period of time.

Researchers did find some age-related differences in wellbeing. They found that (not surprisingly) teens have frequent ups and downs in their emotions, even within the same hour. When they are down, everyone and everything around them seems bleak. When they’re up, even their parents become admirable. “Adult moods are less extreme but far more enduring,” says Myers. And older adults are more calm, less easily rattled, and generally have less stress and fewer demands. This means older adults may be more content, and just as happy, as their middle-aged counterparts even though health concerns may become more common. Surveys in various countries show older people report just as much happiness and satisfaction as younger people.

Divorces occur more frequently with younger adults than older adults. By middle and older ages, couples tend to not focus on changing their partner or fighting so much over control in the relationship. They can often be more content and enjoy one another.

One major predictor of happiness is health and fitness. Not surprisingly, chronic pain or ill health undermines our wellbeing. However, good health doesn’t guarantee happiness any more than a full bank account does.

Studies show those who learn how to slow down, relax, smile more, and laugh more enjoy better quality of life. (Couples who enjoy a great sense of humor have a leg up here.) Of course, there are all those recommendations about eating well and exercising, but talking about laughing more sounds a lot more fun. When will we find a study that shows eating crème brulee once a week leads to a long, happy life? In truth, the book explains exercise has been shown to dramatically improve depression. Even a short walk raises energy levels and lowers tension. Aerobic exercise is quite effective at elevating mood.

As far as whether men or women enjoy greater wellbeing, multiple studies show gender accounts for less than 1 percent of people’s differing wellbeing. Men and women are equally likely to report being “very happy” and “satisfied or very satisfied” with life. However, women are much more likely to suffer from depression. Women are more likely to feel anxiety as well as joy. Our gender feels the highs and lows more strongly, particularly in relationships. (Our husbands might have noticed we tend to be more emotional.) We are also the more empathetic gender. On the other hand, men are more likely to suffer from alcohol addictions and to commit suicide.

Do these insights dispel any myths you had about happiness as it relates to age or gender?  Do you have any guesses regarding whether education or race plays a major part in happiness levels? Is there a phase of life that you dread?

Interesting Links:
One way you might improve your energy level, attitude and happiness is to get more sleep. Concert violinists say the only thing that improves their performance more than practice is getting adequate sleep. This Huffington Post article convinces us that it’s more important than food.

The always educational Michele Weiner-Davis teaches us How to Make Your Spouse Want to Change.

The always super-entertaining Alisa Bowman teaches us that we don’t always have to follow someone else’s marriage recipe in her FaceBook post: What Lentil Soup Taught Me About Marriage.

Thanks so much to Jennifer Gill Rosier for naming this blog as one of her 10 Favorite Marriage Blogs at Jen’s Love Lessons. Read about the other nine!

Interesting new fact: 1 out of 8 couples married in the U.S. met using social media!

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