Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Work of Love

The idea of happiness in romance is pervasive, but not well understood. Usually we judge the success of a romance based on how happy the people seem to be. But measuring success based on happiness is difficult and often damaging.

What is Happiness?

Martin Seligman has done work to give better definitions of what happiness is and how we can pursue it well. Along with other researchers in the field of positive psychology, Seligman has identified three types of happiness: pleasure, passion, and purpose.


The type of happiness described by pleasure is simply what feels good in the moment. In romance this is often the feelings of connection, having things in common, enjoying being together, and delighting in what is shared. Pleasure is a beautiful, fleeting thing that sends cascades of dopamine through our brains and fades as quickly as it's found.


Passion describes the type of happiness achieved through engaging, working, and learning something until the the work disappears and becomes a flow. Learning to play the guitar takes effort, it starts off feeling clumsy and awkward, but with time and practice the mechanics of the act fade away and the joy of the music drives things forward. In romance passion is found when the you've learned how to anticipate each other's needs, when you can work side-by-side without arguing or correcting each other and the result is better than anything you could have done on your own. 


Purpose is using your skills and talents for the betterment of a community. If passion is learning to play the guitar and joining a band, purpose is playing in that band to raise money for charities that you care deeply about or writing songs that help others process their own pain. In romance purpose is seen when you are both deeply engaged in making your world a better place together.

Happy Romance

We easily fall into the happiness of pleasure. We experience something, we like it, so we keep doing it. We fall in love in the same way. We like someone so we keep spending time with them. It's easy, simple, and fleeting. 

From Pleasure to Passion

Making the transition from pleasure to passion isn't always natural. We usually just try to get through the parts of the relationship that feel like work so we can get back to the parts that feel like fun. Over time it's possible to stumble into passion, but it's not so easy. We have to remain committed long enough to get past the unpleasurable parts, to do the work of learning and growing, and from that we can find moments of passion. 

Any couple that's built Ikea furniture together knows that it can be frustrating to learn to work together. The arguing and annoyances build up. It would be easier to just quit, to have only one person do the job, to pay someone else to do it. Sometimes the arguments are resolved, the annoyances are minimized, and the work gets done. The next time (if there is one) gets easier, and eventually it's possible to get to a point where the work just flows without anyone having to manage the process. 

But that method usually requires a lot of broken Ikea furniture. 

The Work of Love

Passion is when we feel that our talents and skills are being well used and the steps in the process disappear as we just do things that are difficult and complicated. This is called flow. In sports they talk about flow as being in the zone. In work it's when the day disappears and we look up to see that it's time to go home. Flow is a great source of passion-happiness that requires developing skills and understanding process to accomplish. 

The work of love is uncovering each person's skills, learning each person's process, and putting in the time to practice using your skills in the process of life together. 

That takes time. It takes effort and energy and not giving up when things are difficult. It takes commitment. It also helps to have some practical steps to get into the steps of learning. What we have used is an annual retreat, we call ours the State of the Marriage Retreat. We go away for a night once a year to talk through our skills and our processes. We look for what we can learn, what we can improve, and what we're doing well. It's work, and it is absolutely worth it. 

How do you find the passion-happiness in your relationship?