I’ve been reading “A Book About Love,” the journalist Jonah Lehrer’s new exploration of the different forms love can take and how it makes our lives worthwhile.
In the chapter on marriage, Lehrer cites some fascinating research on the nature of love in arranged marriages: Apparently, they’re just as happy and satisfying — if not more so — as free-choice marriages.
In fact, Lehrer highlights a few studies that found love can and does grow over time in arranged marriages. Even if you don’t love your partner the minute you meet them, 10 years later, there’s a good chance you will.
When I dug into some of these studies, I started to feel a little bit of research deja vu — as if I’d come across these findings before. I hadn’t.
Eventually, I figured out that these results seemed remarkably similar to research I covered last year, on how people develop passion for their job. According to that study, led by Patricia Chen at the University of Michigan, people who believe that they can grow passionate about their job over time wind up just as happy as those who believe they have to find the ideal job that ignites their passion right from the start.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that, based on this science, you take a lousy gig or propose to a random person you meet on the street, assuming your passion and love will blossom in time. You shouldn’t.
For me at least, the key takeaway from all this research is that the development of love and passion — for your partner or your job — takes effort.
Lehrer interviewed a couple whose marriage was arranged, and the wife said of her husband that she would always be getting to know him, as long as they were together. In other words, as Lehrer says, romantic attachments require “endless work.”
Even in free-choice marriages, Lehrer says it’s hard work maintaining romantic love and avoiding habituation — a.k.a. getting used to the person you married and watching the sparks fade. That work can involve making an effort to say something nice to your partner regularly or sharing the housework equitably.
In other words, even if you choose your partner thinking they’re your soulmate or at least someone well-suited to you, marriage isn’t a sit-back-and-enjoy-the-ride kind of thing. Long-term love doesn’t happen to you; you make it happen.
The same idea applies to work. In Chen’s study, people who believed they could develop passion for their job over time were more likely to say they’d take a high-paying, less-enjoyable position than people who believed they had to be passionate about their job from the start.
But presumably, they wouldn’t just accept that their job would satisfy them on a financial level and leave them bored and frustrated on a personal level. They would put in effort to make their job more stimulating and fulfilling, so that it satisfied all their needs.
Maybe that means engaging in what psychologists call “job crafting,” or tweaking aspects of your jobs so that it’s more meaningful and lines up better with your personal values.
In one study, members of a hospital cleaning crew performed behaviours that weren’t included in their job descriptions, like spending time with distressed patients. Those employees found their work more meaningful than those who said they were there mainly for the money. Job crafters went out of their way to find meaning, and perhaps even passion, where they otherwise wouldn’t have existed.
I can’t emphasise enough that if you’re in an unhappy marriage or a soul-sucking job, there’s no shame in leaving or looking for other options. But if you see every relationship and job as potentially perfect for you — especially if it once was or if it satisfies certain needs of yours — you’ll be more likely to work on making it so.
It’s not the most romantic take on love and passion. In a perfect world, we’d all be living with our soulmates and working our dream jobs. And maybe there are some lucky people out there, who feel like they don’t need to work to stay happy and fulfilled.
But for the rest of us, it helps to know that happiness and fulfillment are within our reach, if we’re willing to stick out our arm and grab them.
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