The Pursuit of Happiness

I just finished The Happiness Project, a book by Gretchen Rubin based on her year-long project to make her life happier. It was a good read with tips I’m going to integrate into my own life. When this book came out in 2009, book clubs started their own happiness projects based on Rubin’s formula. As with most things trendy, I’m a little late in the game, but fortunately the steps from her book can be started anytime.

Taking some of Rubin’s key points and applying them to marriage and divorce, this is what I’ve come up with:

1. Instead of asking, “Does my boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse make me happy?” or thinking “I’d be happy if I were in a relationship,” we should be asking ourselves whether we are pursuing in our personal life the proven factors that bring about happiness. One thing I’ve learned from Rubin’s Happiness Project is that finding happiness requires effort and a daily commitment. It’s a lot easier to be unhappy– that doesn’t take any work. To make yourself consistently happy—that’s almost like a full-time job. My first thought is, “I don’t have time for all this.” But if I want to be happier, I guess I better make the time.

2. If I were going through a divorce, I would use this time for some real reflection on what is missing in my life and what would make me happier. Take an inventory of what you are doing with your time, whether you are pursuing activities that lead to personal satisfaction and fulfillment, and if not, figure out what small steps you could take to get started. Also figure out what will ultimately bring you long-term happiness. Divorce is naturally a time to open some new doors as old ones close, so why not open ones that lead you to where you want to be in 2, 3, 5 years….

3. If you are still married but contemplating divorce, take a good look at what you expect from married life and what you expect to find in single life. Ask yourself: Am I blaming too much of my marital unhappiness on my spouse? Is it truly my spouse who hinders my ability to pursue these happiness factors, or merely the circumstances of family life? Will getting divorced really make me happier in the long run, or are there changes I can make within the marriage that will accomplish what I need to be happier? These questions are particularly important to answer when you have children together. You are stuck with your ex for a long time, married or not, when you have kids.

4. Likewise, I would ask similar questions when thinking about getting re-married. Am I expecting too much of my new mate, which is going to doom this relationship to fail? Will marrying this person increase these happiness factors and allow me the time to pursue them in a supportive environment? Or will getting re-married merely complicate this?

5. Last, I think it’s important to add a reality check to this happiness discussion. It is frankly somewhat unrealistic to expect yourself to be happy when you are in the middle of a divorce. Divorce–even when for the right reasons–is a time of enormous change and upheaval. It is like a death and involves the same grief and healing process. I’ve never had a client who was “happy” during their divorce, and for most of them it took a year or two to regain their emotional footing.

Yes, use the time of your divorce to figure out what will make you happy in the future so you can begin to sow the seeds now, but the reality is that you are in the winter of your life and spring isn’t here just yet.

Putting pressure on yourself to be happy isn’t going to change the difficulty of this time. I wish our lives were as easy as painting an old house–and we could just put a fresh coat of paint over the old paint and start anew.

Instead, there’s a lot of emotional and spiritual clutter that has to be sorted through, such as examining what went wrong and learning from your mistakes and accepting that you married someone who is now hurting you and may have betrayed you. Allow yourself to grieve and feel sadness before you try to jump back into the pursuit of happiness. No one likes this advice and it’s no fun, but think of it this way: you’ve got to pull out the weeds before you can plant your new garden.