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Journey to Wholeness

What Makes Us Happy?

By Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.



Do we really know what makes us happy? Analysis of recent survey data by University of Virginia professor, Brad Wilcox, tells us that seventy-five percent of adults ages 18-40 said that making a good living was crucial to fulfillment while only thirty-two percent thought marriage was crucial to fulfillment. Eighty-eight percent of parents said it was extremely or very important for their kids to be financially independent, while only twenty-one percent said the same about marriage.


Dr. Wilcox says, “But the reality is that nothing currently predicts happiness better than good relationships.” There is a thirty percent happiness divide between married and unmarried Americans for both men and women. Some studies have told us that Americans have reported working as the most miserable and difficult part of their lives. Perhaps we need to rethink our attitudes about relationships.


Think about the history of marriage. It was often not a personal decision, but one made by the individual’s family. It was also often determined by class, ethnicity, religion, or other customs. According to some religions, and many cultures, the main reason for marriage was to procreate descendants who would carry on family names, own property, fill needed jobs in the community, and somehow carry out a divine injunction. Perhaps some people found love, but surely love and companionship was not the primary objective.


In the 60s, as the mantra became personal fulfillment and we were paying more attention to the rights of the individual person, marriage and committed relationships were less palatable. In 1970 fifteen in one thousand marriages ended in divorce. Interestingly, in 2019, the lowest rates of divorce since 1970 were recorded. Also, the median duration of current marriages has gained almost one year in the last decade.


Though those who are married report much greater happiness, fewer Americans are married today. The U.S. marriage rate hit an all-time low in 2019. College-educated and economically better-off Americans are more likely to marry and stay married. Some people report they are postponing marriage because they can’t afford a wedding or do not have a stable job. Financial penalties for getting married include things like higher taxes and not being eligible for certain financial benefits.


As a person who could not enjoy certain benefits of marriage for most of my adult life, I had decided it wasn’t necessary or important and I enjoyed several long-term relationships. When the United States Supreme Court made the historic decision in 2015 to approve the rights of gay people to marry legally, we asked ourselves whether that was something we would choose to do. We decided to have a public celebration with our friends, relatives, and Buddhist community in 2016. We were quite surprised and very happy about how this made us feel. We felt affirmed by all present. Our adult children also felt their family was recognized. Though our love was strong, the ceremony and love of all present, brought us to a deeper sense of love and connection. Others I have spoken with, both gay and heterosexual, have mentioned that the act of marriage made a positive difference.


In listening to young people, I do see a desire for connection. Many are living with a person they care about. Some are looking at polyamorous relationships with different guidelines and expectations. Perhaps we have begun the journey of defining marriage as a loving relationship with people who are friends, sharing life and its challenges together. Integrating the ability to be an individual within a relationship changes its character greatly.


The reports of much greater happiness in a partnered relationship, where we are equals, striving for our individual and shared happiness, may tell us we are changing the meaning and purpose of this ancient institution. Getting married or not is a choice. Certainly, a happy single life is better than a miserable married one. One lifestyle does not fit all and we may find ourselves happily experiencing different possibilities at different times of our lives.


As the younger generations have opportunities to continue to redefine what this relationship is and can be, I hope the connections will be richer, and deeper, and offer happiness to people of all economic or educational backgrounds. This is indeed a positive step forward for all of us.

Jude LaClaire, Ph. D., LCPC is a counselor and educator at the Heartland Holistic Health Center. She is the author of the “Life Weaving Education Curriculum” that teaches creative, effective, holistic problem solving. For counseling appointments, seminars, in-service training or speaker’s bureau, call 816-509-9277 or;

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