The pleasure of pleasing: Helping others can be key to your own happiness

Helping others can be a key part of our own quest for happiness, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of our own needs, writes Jenny Sherlock

THE phrase “happy wife, happy life” is synonymous with modern life. It is a mantra adopted by many men (and women). There are various reasons for this it seems, depending on who you ask.

The cynic in me would tell you that those who view the world this way are simply looking for someone else to make their decisions, while my inner optimist would like to believe that those people simply place great importance on the happiness of others. The reality is likely to sit somewhere in the middle.

The phrase dates back to the early 1900s, part of a working man’s song. Of course, society was structured much differently back then, with the gender divide being much larger than it is today. Adapting that mentality may have made sense in that context, given that the majority of men were the sole breadwinners leaving their wives to run the family and the household. Whether the phrase is still appropriate in today’s more equal society is a matter of personal opinion.

Ever the optimist!

On the surface, “happy wife, happy life” appears to focus primarily on the happiness of the wife or mother in the household, but what it really conveys is a focus on the importance of the happiness of others within our family dynamic. There are genuine benefits to adopting an altruistic approach in many areas of our lives as long as we, and those around us, also place importance on our own happiness.

Integrative psychotherapist Leona Monaghan believes that “trying to make others happy gives us pleasure — there are numerous psychological studies around how ‘good deeds’ increase our own happiness and raise endorphins”. We see this all the time with charity events or caring professions where those involved seem to get a genuine boost from doing something selfless for the benefit of others.

My own husband is a believer in the mantra and often says he gets a great sense of satisfaction from doing things that make me happy, and the fact that I feel the same emphasises how important it is to be reciprocal in this approach.

In our case, it also relates to our personalities; he is much more laid back than I am and tends to worry less about potential negative outcomes and as a result doesn’t give as much weight to decisions as I do.

Ulterior motives

It would be easy for me to provoke a reaction by taking the cynical approach that men use this mantra as a cop-out to avoid making decisions for themselves by deferring that function to their partner, but in truth, many of us don’t like making decisions and choose not to when the outcome is not important to us or where we don’t have a preference. In some cases, deferring decisions to others can actually contribute to our happiness by reducing anxiety and stress.

Relieving yourself of all decision-making, however, can be detrimental, as making your happiness dependent on the actions of others is not a healthy approach to life. Happiness is an evolving state which Leona says is “found through healthy patterns of relating with others, but not wholly dependant on another”.

Leona Monaghan, Integrative Psychotherapist, says it is important to acknowledge what your partner does, a little admiration goes a long way. PIc: Orla Murray/SON Photo

Everything in moderation

As with anything in life, there are positive and negative sides. There is merit in wanting to make another person happy, but not to the detriment of our own happiness. Ensuring we don’t fall to the bottom if our own list of priorities is important in safeguarding ourselves. We cannot allow responsibility for our happiness to fall on someone else’s shoulders.

Leona emphasises that balance is key and that issues can emerge where it is lacking: “Problems arise when people go over and above the call of duty, ignoring their own needs. We all have that one friend or colleague or family member who can’t say no, and who is so burnt out trying to please everyone that their own psychological and physical health suffer”.

Taking the simplistic view that this mantra is purely an avoidance technique does a disservice to us all. We are a complex species with an enormous range of thoughts and emotions so viewing this as a get-out clause may be unfair generalisation. For many people, this approach is simply a compromise which contributes to a healthy relationship.

Demands placed on us by the pace of modern life have greatly increased stress levels, so it is important, now more than ever, that we are mindful of ourselves, of our relationships, and ensure that we feel equally appreciated and valued.

While much of the focus seems to be on the volume of tasks women manage on a daily basis, acknowledging the aspects of the relationship where partners suffer matters too. Leona advises that “it is extremely important to realise all that both parties are doing in the relationship — a little admiration goes a long way”.

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