Shortly after Sandra Bullock won the Academy award for Best Actress this month, she discovered that her husband had been cheating on her. The Academy Award is huge, something that happens only to a chosen few. Marital infidelity, on the other hand, happens all the time. But somehow, Bullock’s achievement was overshadowed by her husband’s faithlessness. So if she could do it again, would Sandra Bullock trade her Academy Award for a good marriage?
As it turns out, most people would answer yes. We would sacrifice individual success for marital happiness. At least, that’s the findings of recent research regarding happiness.
Using this research, New York Times Columnist David Brooks, in The Sandra Bullock Trade, writes:
Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled. (emphasis mine)
Perhaps good marriages are far more valuable than many assume. Much more than just a legal contract or utilitarian concession, a successful marriage can be a springboard to personal fulfillment and career success. Knowing there is peace at home, someone to support us through the ups and downs, we are far more likely to be satisfied and ultimately succeed at what we attempt. Switching cart and horse, however, can be disastrous. In other words, pursuing professional success above marital happiness rarely leads to both.
But this principle of relationships over career has broader implications. Writes Brooks:
The overall impression from this research is that economic and professional success exists on the surface of life, and that they emerge out of interpersonal relationships, which are much deeper and more important.
The second impression is that most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones. (emphasis mine)
So not only is money not everything, the inordinate pursuit of it jacks up everything.
While Brooks is spot on in emphasizing “interpersonal relationships” over “professional success,” the truth is that genuine happiness lies at a much deeper level — deeper than just healthy social circles. Yes, we “vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives,” and “economic and professional success exists on the surface of life” and emerges from something “much deeper and more important.” Biblically speaking, however, this “deeper” element is not simply human relationships.
The danger in relying on such statistical data is in the assumption that happiness has scientific calibrations. You know, join this group, make more friends, attend marriage seminars, develop communicative skills, etc., and you will be happy. The problem is that healthy, happy relationships are the result of still more deeper elements. Relational happiness is not an end in itself, it is connected to something less measurable than communicative skills and conflict resolution. The person at peace within themselves, at peace with God and the Universe, is more likely to develop and maintain good relationships.
But this happiness exceeds scientific quantification.
So, to answer our initial question: Yes, we should swap personal success for relational happiness. But on an even deeper level, real relational happiness has very little to do with those relationships at all.