You can't rely on marriage to make you happy
Happily ever after? Jason Segel proposes to Emily Blunt in the movie, The Five Year Engagement
If you’ve never worked in the media, allow me to lift the magician’s curtain a little. You might imagine an army of intrepid newshounds who pound the pavements with nothing more than a camera, a notebook and their trusty fountain pen, searching for stories and doggedly following up every lead, while wearing a battered but fetching trenchcoat and a trilby with a little card tucked in the band which reads ‘Press’.
But you’d be wrong. Today’s media organisations are made up of vast open-plan floors where no writer could ever possibly concentrate for more than one consecutive minute, full of harrowed functionaries attempting to file half a dozen stories per day while continuously revising the ones they’ve already written for the ravenous, insatiable beast that is the internet.
The average journo of today is on the phone to three contacts at once while trying to finish typing up a completely different story and simultaneously searching job websites for a new career, because everyone knows the media is going down the toilet.
Working journos also have to find at least five hours in every day for posting pictures of kittens playing in sock drawers on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest – but not LinkedIn, or they won’t get that new job they so desperately crave.
What I’m saying is that they’re very busy, so busy that they have precious little time to come up with ideas for stories, let alone actually leave the building to pursue them.
Fortunately, a secondary army stands ready to assist. Because for every one desperately stressed journo in this country, there are at least a dozen publicists bombarding them with press releases. The emails they send are often customised to a journo’s precise requirements, and they’ll even go so far as to suggest a list of interview questions. Lazy journos cut and paste their helpfully pre-written paragraphs, while the more conscientious practitioners change a word here and there so they won’t get caught by Media Watch.
Publicists are like those parents who pre-chew a steak for their offspring to make it nice and easy to digest, but gross when you think about it. But without them, our media simply couldn’t function. It’s not like you follow up every press release, of course – that would be impossible. But when they serve you up your content on a platter, and it’s tough to resist.
Nowadays, I receive emails from publicists regularly. And I was genuinely touched that they’d gone so far as to personalise the messages with a “Dear Dom” until somebody told me about the mail merge function in Microsoft Outlook.
I was also surprised that they thought I might be able to help them in some way, instead of rendering their product just that little bit less cool, like I do with the clothes I wear.
Nevertheless, there are times when a press release fails to entice me to promote anything, and instead just irks me. This week I received an email suggesting that I have a chat with a certain gentleman, whom I will not name, about how wonderful his life was. Or at least that’s how I interpreted it initially. The suggestion was that we discuss some new research from Deakin University which looked at marriage and its correlation with happiness. Its key finding was that people who have been married for more than 40 years are happiest. This person whose publicist contacted me has done similar research, apparently, and has come up with a bunch of tips for how to make a long-term relationship work.
Great, I thought to myself. Not only am I surrounded by smug married people at every social function I attend, not only do they fill my Facebook feed with photos of them hugging one another and their perfect progeny – now they’ve started emailing me at work as well.
And yes, I’m aware that it might seem a touch narcissistic to interpret a perfectly generic publicity pitch through the lens of my own situation, but if my life isn’t all about me then I’d greatly appreciate someone clarifying that for me. Preferably while talking a great deal about me in the process.
Marriage is all about being “happy ever after”. That’s how our society defines it – and one interesting thing about the Deakin research is that it reveals that most married couples are actually at their least happy in their first year of marriage, as the reality of making that commitment kicks in, and they discover that it isn’t just a question of trotting merrily through a field of daisies.
Growing up in a family and society where it was very much the norm, I’ve always idealised marriage. I would be happy someday when I was married, I told myself. So conversely, while I was not, I could not possibly be happy. The secret to life, as I understood it, was all about finding somebody else, about finding the yin to your yang, the Tennille to your Captain. Without a wife, I was incomplete.
That message is driven home by every rom-com I watch, by every photo I see in a gossip magazine of lovestruck celebrities clinging to one another, by every couple I pass snuggling on a park bench while you’re kicking a soft-drink can along the path for lack of anything better to do on a Saturday night, or perhaps that last one is just me.
But here’s the thing. If it doesn’t happen for you, then the only sensible response is to find other means of happiness and fulfilment. Other people can help, be they friends, family, colleagues or pets, but in the end you have to be okay with moving through life as a unit of one. With booking one seat on a plane for your holiday, with asking the maitre’d for a table for one, with lying in a double bed by yourself when you stay in hotels. With going and watching a movie by yourself, and analysing it in your head as you walk home instead of talking it through with a companion.
Sure, all of this may not be ideal, but you know what? It’s fine.
The only alternative is hating your life, and keep focussing on what you lack instead of all the great things you’ve got going on. Since my life is actually fairly excellent, and rolling as a solo slice of yin is just fine, at least for the time being, I’ve had to learn that it’s perfectly possible to be happy without being married, and that being single isn’t necessarily an inferior state of being.
The other alternative, of course, is to simply rush into a relationship that isn’t right, just so you won’t be alone. And that’s the problem with this survey, of course. Sure, marriage might make people happier, I wouldn’t know. But there’s plenty of evidence that it can make you unhappier too. Single lives might be a bit empty at times, but they surely aren’t as miserable as an unhappy marriage can be, with two people tearing at one another until finally they break loose. When you're single, there are no fights, and there are surely fewer tears.
And so I began to think critically about the Deakin research, instead of just pitying myself. The survey found that people who had been married for 40 years or more were happiest. Okay, fine. But to be married for that amount of time, they must surely have been alive for at least 56 years; in all probability closer to sixty-five or seventy. That means they’ve probably retired, or close to it. They’re probably fairly wealthy, having benefited from the housing boom that’s still making city living so unaffordable for my generation. They probably have grandchildren. Of course they’d be fairly content with their lot in life!
What’s more, anyone of that age would have grown up in the aftermath of World War II, and seen Vietnam and all those other conflicts as well. If you’ve lived through, or near, a time of war, of course you’re going to appreciate what we have now more than somebody who’s thirty ever could. What’s normal for us surely feels like a hard-won gain for older people. They’ve also got more perspective on the incredible convenience of modern life. Even a dishwasher is enough to make you feel pretty satisfied with how things had worked out for you, I’d imagine.
Besides, they're in a position where society demands they feel happy, nearing the end of a long life, and it takes a lot of guts in that scenario to put up your hand and tell a stranger doing market research that you aren't.
The lesson I ultimately draw from the Deakin research is not in fact that we should all marry for forty years plus to be happy, but that the rest of us should all be happier with the world we actually live in, and stop taking so many things for granted.
So what I’m going to do now is go outside and have a walk in the park in the midday sun. I’ll remember to be grateful that I’m almost too old for military service, and never got called up. And I’ll be glad of my friends, and family, and the comfortable life I lead. And if any researcher from Deakin Uni asks me whether I’m happy, even though I’ll be walking through the park by myself when I take their call, I’ll say hell yes.
Oh, and the guy who I was supposed to be talking to? As I read more about his life, it turned out that he’s been through some incredibly tough times as well. His first marriage broke up, they had fertility problems and he spent some time in prison. So it’s not surprising that he feels pretty happy about how his life has turned out now. And while I’ve never had any of his ups in life, I reckon I’m okay with that if I don’t have to go through the bad times he’s been through. Perhaps I’ll write an advice book of my own, and send him a press release?
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