Yesterday, David Brooks wrote a column on relationships and happiness that gave me a lot to think about yesterday. I was quite taken with it at first, but the more I thought about it, the less impressed I was. In it, he argues that a successful marriage trumps a successful career when it comes to the pursuit if happiness:
Nonetheless, if you had to take more than three seconds to think about this question, you are absolutely crazy. 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.
The question was, would Sandra Bullock have been better off with a happy marriage or her Oscar? But that’s really a stupid question, because clearly Sandra Bullock would have chosen the type of person to marry that she described in her acceptance speech rather than someone who pretended to be that type of person while cheating on her at every opportunity had she known better. To pretend that there was any kind of choice to make is silly.
I think the positive aspect of his column is that it serves to remind people that good relationships are a big part of being happy, and that the government should evaluate policy in terms of whether it encourages good relationships. (On that note, given that marriage is such a huge contributor to happiness, disallowing same-sex marriage seems even more inhumane than ever.) But I think that Brooks’ column sets up a false choice.
In some cases career advancement and personal relationships are in opposition, but in many cases they are not. Generally speaking, the best recipe for happiness is to have a fulfilling career and to have a fulfilling marriage. If one is unfulfilling, it tends to rub off on the other.
Every once in awhile it does come down to a tough choice between the two. Do you really want to take that job that is going to require you to travel 26 weeks a year? Is it worth taking a job that means you will often come home too late to have dinner with the family? More often than not, though, people make poor decisions when choosing between negative impulses and the goals they claim to have. And it’s those bad decisions that ruin their careers and their marriages.