When you’re talking about something as complex and complicated as two people coming together in marriage, it can be easy to focus on all of the problems that need to be solved.

It’s like buying a house that needs to be fixed up. First, you tackle the major issues. The roof needs to be replaced. The wiring needs updating. The plumbing requires professional help.

And just when you think you can sit down on your couch and relax, you notice the smaller things that were overshadowed at first. The popcorn ceiling is uneven and should just be smoothed down. The carpet is stained and should be replaced with much more durable flooring. That wall colour you never really noticed when you first moved in needs a fresh coat in a new hue.

Constantly finding things to fix makes it difficult to focus on the present and be grateful for what you have. You have a roof over your head. You have four walls around you. You have warmth. A hearth. A home.

Similarly, when all you can see in your marriage are the problems, you have a much harder time finding the good things – the things to be grateful for. Looking at everything that’s wrong with your marriage is a quick and easy way to be miserable. But by adjusting your focus and taking on a more grateful attitude, you can see your marriage – and your life – through a whole new lens.

What it actually means to be happy

In a Focus on the Family radio broadcast, psychologist and author Dr. Henry Cloud explains "that only 10 per cent of our happiness comes from anything circumstantial." He goes on to say, "Whether I’m rich or poor, get the job I want or don’t, married or single, get to live in the neighbourhood I want to or not, get the car, whatever, we get about a 10 per cent bump in our happiness when something circumstantial goes well . . . But then we go right back to a basic set point of who we are as a person."

"When we talk about happiness," Cloud continues, "it has to do with this basic orientation towards life and these basic practices that make for a stable sense of well-being."

Those practices, he notes, are what make up the other 90 per cent of our happiness. One of the practices he outlines in his book, Law of Happiness, is gratitude. "Happy people, and this is scientific research," he says, "happy people do not compare themselves to others." Further adding, "The opposite of envy is gratitude."

David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, writer and speaker, explains the importance of living with a grateful attitude in a TED Talk: "We all know quite a number of people who have everything that it would take to be happy, and they are not happy, because they want something else or they want more of the same. And we all know people who have lots of misfortune, misfortune that we ourselves would not want to have, and they are deeply happy. They radiate happiness. You are surprised. Why? Because they are grateful. So it is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy."

How to be grateful

So how do you keep that 10 per cent fluctuation from being your only source of happiness? How can you keep yourself from being thankful for your spouse one second and in the next look at all the things you two need to work on? How can you be driven by gratitude rather than a pursuit of happiness?

"It’s a very simple method," Steindl-Rast explains. "It's so simple that it's actually what we were told as children when we learned to cross the street. Stop. Look. Go. That's all."

When asked to stop and think about something in their marriage they are grateful for, Ellie* responded with, "I love to see all his grey hairs and wrinkles knowing that they happened when I was with him. Knowing that I’m the only one who knows where they are. I love him more now with grey hair and wrinkles than I did when he was younger." Both she and her husband Karl* admit this wasn’t something they thought about before they got married, but they’ve come to realize that they cherish the process of growing old together.

Like Steindl-Rast says, taking the time to stop and be grateful is a relatively simple concept, and when you do so, you can make a positive impact in your marriage. After you do that, he notes that "the next thing is to look. You look. You open your eyes. You open your ears. You open your nose. You open all your senses for this wonderful richness that is given to us. There is no end to it, and that is what life is all about, to enjoy – to enjoy what is given to us."

Focus on God, not on your marriage

And if you, like Cloud suggests, go beyond the secular research, and go beyond the common, earthly happiness that can be attained through gratitude, you can get to a deeper level of appreciation. Francis Chan, in his book You and Me Forever, explains the importance of changing your focus from the temporal to the eternal and looking at God’s purpose for your marriage, and your life.

"A strange thing happened when Lisa and I started living with an eternal lens," he writes, "it caused us to enjoy the here and now!"

When you focus on the big picture and look beyond your own happiness, your spouse’s happiness and the fleeting goal of earthly happiness, you can see happiness through God’s eyes.

Both Chan and Steindl-Rast warn that living gratefully does not erase the presence of difficulty or struggle. Rather, it allows you to weather those storms together.

"It’s not that we shouldn’t pay attention to obvious problems before us," Chan notes, "but we need to look at them with an eternal lens."

Steindl-Rast echoes this. "I didn’t say we can be grateful for everything," he explains. "I said we can be grateful in every given moment for the opportunity, and even when we are confronted with something that is terribly difficult, we can rise to this occasion and respond to the opportunity that is given to us. It isn't as bad as it might seem. Actually, when you look at it and experience it, you find that most of the time, what is given to us is the opportunity to enjoy, and we only miss it because we are rushing through life and we are not stopping to see the opportunity."

*Names changed to protect privacy

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox

View comments ()