A big article in this weekend’s business section of the New York Times explores what can, and can’t, buy you happiness. Unsurpisingly, the answer is: experiences, not things. The one category of spending that increases people’s happiness over time is leisure. Money spent on travel, learning a new skill, or taking up a hobby or sport will keep a smile on your face longer than the cash you plunk down for that designer purse.
In the midst of all this research on the power of leisure spending, there’s this gem: a $20,000 boost in leisure spending is roughly equivalent to the boost in happiness you get from marriage.
That’s right: the happiness you derive from your happily-ever-after is only worth about $20,000.
While this is great news for the single ladies out there, it made my happily married heart cringe. Some people spend more than that on their weddings. Would our cash really be better spent on more trips to Cancun and less time in couple’s therapy?
Bottom line: is being married worth it?
Of course I’m going to say yes. You saw that coming, right?
I suspect that being happy in marriage is a bit like being happy as a parent. In his essay a few weeks ago about happiness in parenting, Babble’s founder Rufus Griscom talked about the sublime joys of parenting. It’s hard to measure the happiness of travel against the happiness of having a spouse or a child.
Travel presumably never works late and forgets to call. That French cooking class you took last spring isn’t going to wake you up at 2 a.m. demanding to be fed. Your mountain bike isn’t going to leave it’s muddy tires all over the kitchen after you’ve asked it not to.
There’s a simpler pleasure in leisure than there is in family. The joy of marriage, like the joy of parenting, isn’t the same happy feeling you get from a day at the beach. It’s a larger sense of fulfillment. Over many years, you find your life deeper and richer because you aligned yourself in a loving way with the life of another person.
All those late night feedings and lunchtime therapy sessions are no fun at all, but they build connection. The sharp edges of intimate relationships give life texture, too. Being up at sunrise with a fussy baby is still a chance to catch a breathtaking sunrise you might have peacefully slept through.
These mixed blessings create a fullness of experience you won’t get no matter how many miles you travel alone.
In addition to leisure spending, the thing happiness researchers find gives people lasting joy is “strong relationships”. The ones you form with your spouse and children are worth more than $20,000 in vacation money.
Or so I keep telling myself as I sign those checks for groceries, daycare and the rest of daily life.