Chase Meaning Not Happiness: Year Three–Relationship Series

Maybe you’ve caught on by now: Our February Relationship Series is designed to take last month’s Start the New Year Well skills and apply them specifically to relationships. So why in the world would I suggest that you stop chasing happiness in your relationship? Our relationships are to provide us with joy and happiness, right?  Well, not exactly. Let’s go back to what Amy wrote last week and Gottman’s Sound Relationship House (yes, his research and writing is some of the best relationship information we have).  The pinnacle of the symbolic house is Create Shared Meaning.

I hear it all the time in my office, both in individuals and couples, “I’m just not happy.”  It’s oftentimes the case that when someone feels this way, they look around them and begin to point the finger at their partner.  Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes there are significant problems with a partner that infect our own well-being, but too often, we look outside ourselves to find ‘happiness’ and expect it’s our partner’s job to make us happy.  In our individualistic culture, it’s like a mantra—if you’re not happy, then move on.  You deserve to be happy.  If he/she are not making you happy, find someone who does. Seek happiness elsewhere.

Joy is the emotional result of creating meaning in your life.

Like Amy suggests in her corresponding blog last month, quit chasing happiness—it’s probably joy you’re looking for.  I believe joy is the emotional result of creating meaning in your life.  I did a quick search on the word ‘meaning’ and found ideas like message, significance, essence, spirit.  It’s one thing to ask yourself, “What gives my life meaning?”  But to ask, “What gives my relationship meaning?” is a whole other level of personal exploration.  It invites curiosity with you and your partner.

I’ve been mulling this blog for a few weeks and continue to be mystified by how this whole writing process works: this morning, before I began to write, I watched a TedTalk I’d been saving for a quiet moment.  The speaker was Dr. Susan David, a psychologist with the Harvard Medical School.  In all the things I read and study, I’d never heard of her or her book, Emotional Agility, which was published in 2016.  Her 2017 TedWomen talk contains layers of rare beauty.  (I highly recommend you spend the 17 minutes to watch it.)

Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.

Dr. David’s talk is actually about opening up, sharing, and accepting the difficult emotions that we tend to try to avoid or stuff away—something that has become wholly misunderstood in the positive psychology movement.  She makes the point that when faced with negative emotions (sadness, anger, outrage, etc.), we tend to “run for the emotional exits” of the reality we are facing in that moment.  When we “push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is…”  Instead she argues that “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”  Struggle, loss, and failure help us build skills to deal with our inevitably messy world.

Tough emotions are our contract with life.

I would offer that this wisdom applies to relationships as well: negative emotions will happen.  As David says, “Tough emotions are our contract with life.”  These tough emotions are a part of our relational contract as well.  Many marriage vows include, “In sickness and in health; for richer and poorer.”  For better or worse, right?  Life is messy, after all.  We WILL feel bad.  We will NOT be happy at times.  Honestly accepting these emotions helps us build resilience. David also says that “emotions are data, not directives.”  Unpleasant emotions are not a hidden command to avoid, run, quit, leave.  Instead they should inspire curiosity:  What do I need to do about this state I’m in?  What could I do to bring more meaning to my life?  Same with relationships. What brings meaning to us? What gives our relationship significance? Make this dialogue a relationship goal with your partner.

What inspires the two of you together?  Mission work, your church community, rescuing animals, live music, building something together, competing in races, entertaining friends and family, adventures, artistic and creative endeavors–it could be all kinds of things about which you are passionate. To chase meaning in your shared life space is to find your message, your essence, your spirit.  What is significant enough to you to invest your resources of time and energy and maybe even finances?  Whatever it might be, it’s worth it.

Emotions are messy because Life is Messy.  Creating shared meaning in your relationships makes life more marvelous.


Rhea Ann Merck, Ph.D.

Licensed Psychologist, persistent woman, mother of 2 amazing young women, writer, teacher, life-long learner, curious & creative human, lover of life, passionate about making life better every day…


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