An article on Slate started a furious debate online this past month. The subject? That people should marry young. Author Julia Shaw got married when she was 23 years-old, and she argues that people delaying marriage should follow her lead. “Marriage doesn’t require a big bank account, a dazzling resumé, or a televised wedding,” writes Shaw, “it requires maturity, commitment, and a desire to grow up together.” It is an interesting and countercultural thesis, which drew an official rebuttal and sparkled a worldwide conversation.
The Washington Post’s Wonkblog was one of those trying to weigh in and bring some clarity to this debate. The article’s conclusion was right at the headline: “People who marry young are happier, but those who marry later earn more.” Apparently people who marry later get a head-start in their careers, earn more, and have less chance of getting divorced. Yet, the “the best take-away,” according to author Dylan Matthews, “is probably that, all else being equal, being married makes you happier than you’d otherwise be, but it does so presumably because it involves spending a lot of your time with someone whom you love and who’s a good match for you.”
It is a curious way of putting it: marriage maximizes happiness. Or it doesn’t, if for you happiness is maximized by a higher income, career advancement, and a stronger sense of security. But the answer behind each choice is still the same, isn’t it? Whether our temperament inclines us to the first or to the second option, choose what maximizes your sense of wellbeing.
Yet, the problem is, I don’t think marriage or work will make us much happy–if individual happiness is what makes us say the vow or take the job. Both can make people miserable too, when they discover that even the most promising relationship or the most fascinating job won’t be able to hold the full weight of human expectations. Both marriage and work, and indeed all of life, include humdrum days, menial tasks, frustrations and sacrifices.
I have a hunch things work the other way round: we will be happy when marriage and work take us out of ourselves. When they move our hearts to care about another person because we really love her, or to perform a task because we really believe in it. We will be happy, in other words, when love and vocation become more important than our own happiness, when we live not for out own pleasure but for someone we love and for a cause worthy of our life. Then even the sacrifices of life will be a source of gladness–to take are of a sick spouse, to wake during the night for the kids, that afternoon of boring emails–because they are part of something larger than my immediate pleasure, because they have meaning beyond my own existence.
Our deepest joy consists not in how much we get but in how much we give. As a paragraph in The Paradox of Happiness puts it,
This is what we long with all our ambitions and pursuits–the very thing we try to achieve through self-centeredness. We accrue reputation and attractiveness and hard work in the hope of some day being applauded and praised, in the hope of being a gift worthy of being welcomed and received. We are so preoccupied with the self because the self is the gift we have to offer to the world–the only shot we have at entering the dance of self-giving, appreciation, and love…. The whole of our lives aims to be one grand, wholehearted gift.
Both marriage and work are superb, valid callings. If we say “I do” or “Count me in” for more than individual interest, to give of ourselves to another person or to offer our talents to a worthy purpose, then things get really interesting. Personal happiness won’t be our first goal, but that’s how happiness works, in its beautiful paradox: we will find ourselves happy when happiness is not what we live for.