Is The Secret To A Happy Relationship Really This Simple?

Couples who collaborate for the greater good, whether it’s building schools in Nicaragua or volunteering at a community center, are setting an example for the rest of us–and they just might be happier, to boot.

In an era when there are so many distractions and demands on our time, many couples are searching for a way to stay connected. Working together to make the world a little brighter requires collective compassion, shared goals and a solid sense of perspective–things that just might give these couples a greater shot at happiness.

In her book, The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky explores ways that couples can sustain happiness and stave off the decline of their relationship. Any pursuit that involves personal growth, nurtures or enhances relationships with other people, or helps others can contribute to a healthy partnership. Working together on a charitable project meets all three criteria.

“If you’re a couple that’s been together for a long time, there are no surprises,” says Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California. “When you do something to contribute to the welfare of others, it involves challenges, opportunities, meeting new people and lots of variety and novelty. Those are all things that can prevent you from getting bored or taking each other for granted.”

Margaret Coshan works for Community Matters Toronto–a network of assistance programs for newcomers to Canada–with her partner of 20 years, Chris Hallett. Coshan agrees that their joint project is more than just a paycheck. “You have to tease out your beliefs as a couple,” she says. “It demands more self-examination. I’ve worked on projects like these on my own, but to share a life’s purpose is the best gift I’ve ever had.”

Hallett says their work has taught them skills that are transferable to their relationship. “We deal with newcomers from varied backgrounds. Inevitably, you come to understand that everyone is trying their best and they just happen to come from a completely different perspective,” he says. “If you take that idea and apply it to your relationship, it can make a real difference.”

It’s important to recognize and appreciate your differences in order to have a healthy relationship–but no more important than highlighting similarities and shared aspirations. Chrisanna Northrup’s book, The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples and What They Reveal About Creating a New Normal in Your Relationship, is based on results from an extensive survey that included over 70,000 couples. Northrup says that her research found that the happiest couples are more similar than they are different, and that they support each other’s personal growth. “It makes a big difference when you do something together as a team, rather than one of you doing something extraordinary, while the other waits in the background,” she says.

When Aparna Guha and Aaron McCourtie started Original Trails, an ethical tour company, they wanted to combine their shared passion for travel and a desire to give back. McCourtie says that when he first met Guha, he was drawn to her generosity and empathy, qualities he’s happy to see in their daily work. “It’s great to be with someone who has the same ideals as you,” he says. “And having a common goal really makes us stronger.” Guha says that shared milestones have enriched their relationship. “We’re not making a lot of money, but we’ve been able to build two wells in rural Cambodia,” she says. “It’s amazing to see your partner get just as excited about that as you are.”

The magic of working together on a broader social goal comes not simply from the selflessness, compassion and generosity required, but also the high-stakes challenges. Enjoying successes together is remarkable, but so is helping each other through impasses and failure. It doesn’t have to be your full-time occupation; even taking a volunteer vacation together–helping to build a home with Habitat for Humanity, for example–can help couples develop a perspective that can keep petty annoyances in check. “Couples who are happiest have the ability to prioritize what’s really important, but it’s so easy to get trapped in the drama of the day-to-day,” says psychotherapist Elisabeth LaMotte. “When you look beyond yourselves and invest in a cause that helps others, it can lessen the likelihood that you’re going to put too much emphasis on who’s folding the laundry.”

Of course, nobody’s perfect. Even the most virtuous couples sometimes exchange laundry-related complaints. But we can learn something from these philanthropic twosomes: Take time to express empathy and gratitude, and work together towards positive common goals—guiding principles that apply to all couples, whether you spend your weekends delivering food together for Meals on Wheels, or simply collaborate on baking brownies for an overwhelmed neighbor.

As featured in 2life magazine!

Image(s): iStock