One of the great desires of every person on earth is to live a happy life. The good news is that you live in the right place because researchers have found that Hawaii is the happiest state in the United States. That is, in a survey of nearly 200,000 people living in the U.S., people living in Hawaii, overall, have the highest levels of happiness, compared to people living in other states. [i] So, congratulations on your geographic intelligence.
The prophet Joseph Smith once said, "Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God." [ii]
The book of Mormon provides accounts of people and societies who lived happily. As you will remember, shortly after Lehi died, contention between Laman and Lemuel and those associated with Nephi became so severe that Nephi took his people and departed into the wilderness. There they established a new community where they built a temple, worked hard, and kept the commandments of God. After describing their new life in the wilderness, Nephi simply stated that “we lived after the manner of happiness” ( 2 Nephi 2:27). Later in the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Mormon describes the community of Saints after the Savior had visited them. Mormon described how there was love among the people and that there was no contention or dishonesty. He stated that “there could not be happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.” ( 4 Nephi 1:16)
What made these people so happy? One important requirement, of course, is that they lived righteously, that they had faith in Christ. Certainly, there are great blessings, including enduring happiness, that come from righteous living. In addition, family life provides countless opportunities to experience great happiness. Indeed, our church leaders have consistently taught that marriage is an important pathway to lasting happiness. [iii]
For example, President Henry B. Eyring was invited to speak at the Vatican Summit on Marriage. He and Elder L. Tom Perry had been invited by Pope Francis to attend the summit, along with other religious leaders from around the world. President Eyring was invited to share some remarks, which included him reciting passages from the Family Proclamation. At the beginning of his remarks, he stated "I am grateful to be invited to be a witness at this Colloquium. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to give evidence that a man and a woman, united in marriage, have a transcendent power to create happiness for themselves, for their family, and for the people around them. I am an eyewitness of the power of the union of a man and a woman in marriage to produce happiness for each other and for their family…." [iv]
Thus, embedded in the fundamental doctrine that “marriage is ordained of God” (D & C 49:15) is the doctrine that marriage is a crucial pathway to lasting happiness.
Unfortunately, despite these joyous doctrines about marriage, the modern world is experiencing a dramatic retreat from the marriage institution. The combination of young adults delaying marriage into their late 20s or early 30’s, high rates of cohabitation, high divorce rates, and decreasing remarriage rates after divorce have led to record low numbers of married adults in the United States. For example, in 1960, 88% of adults between the ages of 35 and 44 were married. In 2011, the percentage of married in that age group had declined to 65%. [v] Although the marriage rates in Asia are higher than those in the Western Hemisphere, the trend towards fewer marriages is similar.
A major reason for this decline in marriage is a growing perception that marriage is more often a source of gloom and despair than a sanctuary of happiness. For example, in a recent large, national study of high school seniors in the United States, only 29% of the girls and 39% of boys agreed with the statement that most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living with someone. [vi]
Unfortunately, many of our LDS young single adults have been influenced by this worldly tide of negativity regarding marriage. When I have visited with LDS single college students about their perceptions and concerns about marriage, one of the most common responses that I hear is that they are worried about being in a marriage relationship that is miserable. In other words, many LDS young adults worry that marriage is a risky investment that may be unfulfilling and unsatisfying. After all, they can all recite examples of couples they know, often in their own families, who have suffered through miserable marriages.
Years ago, President Spencer W. Kimball recognized that society had created an inaccurate and unfair perception of marriage. He said, "To offset and neutralize the evil teachings in the media and on the cameras and in the show and on the street, we must teach marriage, proper marriage, eternal marriage." [vii]
The Benefits of Marriage
In response to the concerns of many young adults and in obedience to President Kimball’s call to teach the truth about marriage, I would like to spend a few minutes setting the record straight about marriage.
First, being married has many benefits. Married people, compared to those who are single, have better physical health. Married people also live longer. For example, being non-married is a greater mortality risk factor for men than having heart disease, and, among women, being non-married is a greater mortality risk factor for women than having cancer. Part of the reason for married people enjoying better health is that they live a healthier lifestyle. Married people drink less alcohol, they eat more nutritiously, they have better sleep habits, and they visit the doctor more frequently. Similarly, married people have significantly lower rates of depression and anxiety. [viii]
Despite the wide spread perception that being married is expensive, research has consistently shown that married people are financially better off than their nonmarried peers. One report stated that “Marriage is a wealth-generating institution.” [ix] For example, a study of retirement-age adults in the U.S. found that, compared to continuously married adults, those who had never married experienced a 75% reduction in wealth, and those who were currently cohabiting experienced a 58% reduction. [x] Why are married people better off financially? Research indicates that married people save and invest more of their money. Also, husbands are usually more motivated to be financially productive after marriage. They earn between 10% and 20% more compared to single men with similar job histories and levels of education. [xi]
Second, married people are happier than nonmarried people. For example, research of married people in their 20’s indicates that married people are significantly more likely to report being highly satisfied with their lives than those who are single or cohabiting. Fifty-two percent of married men between the ages of 20 and 28 report being highly satisfied, compared to 35% of single and cohabiting men. Likewise, 47% of women in the age group report being very satisfied, compared to 33% of single and 29% of cohabiting women. [xii]
Third, most marriages are happy. Several years ago some colleagues and I conducted a study of family life. As part of the study, we interviewed a number of LDS families living in the Provo, Utah area. These were middle-aged couples who had at least one adolescent child and who had been married about 20 years. As part of the interview, we asked them to rate on a scale ranging from 1, meaning low, to 10, meaning high, the degree of happiness in their marriage. We found that over three-fourths of both husbands and wives rated their marriage at least an eight, and about 90% of them rated it at least a seven. In addition, the vast majority of the husbands and wives reported that they enjoyed spending time alone, that they felt close to their spouse, and that their love for their spouse had increased over the years.
Fourth, the reported high divorce rate statistics are misleading. We often hear that about 50% of marriages end in divorce, suggesting that a couple getting married has a 50/50 chance of the marriage working out. However, 50% represents the average divorce rate; each couple’s personal probability of divorce varies greatly by specific risk factors. For example, one study indicated that only 16% of women in the U.S. who are college graduates will end up getting a divorce. [xiii]
Besides education, additional risk factors include low income, becoming pregnant before marriage, marrying before age 20, not being affiliated with a religion, and having parents who divorced. [xiv] Thus, a couple married in the temple who graduate from BYU-Hawaii and find a good, stable job after graduation actually has a pretty low probability of divorce. They simply don’t have the risk factors that are associated with a high probability of divorce.
Fifth, cohabitation is greatly overrated. We all know that cohabitation is spiritual poison, but social science research shows that it is a poor precursor to marriage, as well as a poor substitute for marriage. A common assumption about cohabitation is that it makes good sense to live together to find out if you are compatible and your relationship is satisfying before legally getting married. After all, the reasoning goes, you wouldn’t think about buying a car without first test driving it. Why, then, would you think about getting married without living together first?
However, the research doesn’t support this widely-held assumption. A recent review of 16 studies that examined the effect of premarital cohabitation on the success of the subsequent marriage found that premarital cohabitation is actually a significant risk factor for lower marital quality and a higher risk of divorce. [xv]
For some couples, cohabitation does not represent a precursor to marriage; rather, it is a substitute for marriage, with little intention of eventually getting married. Research clearly indicates, though, that cohabitation is a very poor substitute for marriage. Cohabiting couples are less happy, more depressed, and less financially prosperous than similar couples who are legally married. Children living in the home of cohabiting adults also fair much worse than children who live with legally married parents. [xvi]
In summary, the negative reputation about marriage is without empirical support. Despite what you hear in the popular media, adults who are married have better physical and mental health, have more financial resources, and experience higher levels of happiness in their lives. In addition, most married couples are happy in their relationships, especially couples who are religious and well-educated.
Thus, research clearly shows that marriage is the best pathway to living a happy, fulfilling life. It provides support from the social sciences for what Elder Quentin L. Cook said when he gave a commencement address here at BYU-Hawaii several years ago. "Let me assure you that the vast majority of marriages between faithful members of the Church are happy and successful. For those not yet married, you should move forward with faith and confidence toward the ultimate goal of marriage and family…. I assure you that the joy, love, and fulfillment experienced in loving, righteous families produce the greatest possible happiness we can achieve." [xvii]
Choosing the Right Person to Marry
As I have visited with LDS young adults, another common concern that they express about marriage is the fear that they will make a mistake when they choose their spouse. They are afraid that they will inadvertently marry a “lemon”, which will inevitably lead to a miserable marriage. This is an important issue in the LDS culture because we are making a choice that will last for eternity. President Gordon B. Hinckley said “This choice will be the most important of all the choices you make in your life. [xviii] ”Consequently, there is a lot at stake, and we don’t want to make an eternal mistake.
Recognizing the importance of choosing a good partner when we marry, as well as many LDS young adults’ concern about making a good choice, let me offer a few thoughts.
In modern society, love has become the basis by which we choose a marriage partner. Even in Asia, arranged marriages are becoming much less common, and young adults usually choose a person to marry based on love. Falling in love is a natural part of the process of dating, becoming engaged, and getting married. Indeed, the wonderful and exquisite feelings of love is an important ingredient in the happiness that we feel within a marriage.
But what, exactly, is love, especially love within marriage? Elder Joe J. Christensen has offered a compelling description of marital love. It is noteworthy that scientific research on love has echoed these same principles. He said, "Love is a difficult word to understand in the English language. For example, I could say to someone that “I love you.” I used exactly those same words this morning speaking to my wife, Barbara, and I meant something very different. We need to know who is speaking to whom in what context. The Greeks don’t have the same problem because they have three different words for love. The first is eros, or romantic love. The English word erotic comes from that Greek root… The second is philia, or brotherly love. The U.S. “City of Brotherly Love,” Philadelphia, gets its name from that Greek root. The third is agape, or Godlike love, the kind of love that enables our Father in Heaven and the Lord to love us even though we are not perfect. I understand that each time in the Greek text of the New Testament when the Lord commands us to love our enemies, it is agape that is used." [xix]
True love, marital love, then, consists of three components: first, romantic love, second, friendship, and, third, Godlike love. After 30 years of teaching about marriage and working with couples who are struggling in their relationship, I am convinced that the key factor for developing a healthy and lasting love and wisely choosing a marriage partner is the development of a strong friendship. In his commencement talk, Elder Cook said, “I would counsel you to find a righteous spouse whom you admire and who will be your best friend.” [xx]
So, who should you marry? You should marry your best friend! Of course, attraction is important, and you will want to marry a righteous, covenant-keeping person who is worthy to marry you in the temple. But you want that person to also be your close, trusted friend. Why? It is because your friendship will provide an anchor in your relationship as you experience the storms of life that challenge all married couples. Friendship is also the steady, stable root structure that provides nurturance to the blossoms of romance. Without that foundation of friendship, the blossoms of romance eventually fade and die.
Elder Marlin K. Jensen has said, "Friendship is… a vital and wonderful part of courtship and marriage. A relationship between a man and a woman that begins with friendship and then ripens into romance and eventually marriage will usually become an enduring, eternal friendship." [xxi]
Elder Marion D. Hanks helped us understand friendship in a marital context when he said, "Friendship in a marriage is so important. It blows away the chaff and takes the kernel, rejoices in the uniqueness of the other, listens patiently, gives generously, forgives freely. Friendship will motivate one to cross the room one day and say, “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that.” It will not pretend perfection nor demand it. It will not insist that both respond exactly the same in every thought and feeling, but it will bring to the union honesty, integrity. There will be repentance and forgiveness in every marriage—every good marriage—and respect and trust." [xxii]
One of my favorite sociological theories uses the metaphor of the theater to differentiate our front stage from our backstage behavior. [xxiii] Much of our social interaction represents front stage behavior, indicating that we are trying to impress others, and, thereby, have them think highly of us. A good example is how we act at a job interview. We are on our best behavior, sitting up straight, making eye contact, listening intently, and giving articulate answers. Backstage behavior, on the other hand, is when we are not trying to create any particular impression; we are just being who we are. In backstage behavior, we are willing to reveal both our flaws and are virtues. We are willing to let others see our real selves, not just our best selves.
My experience is that one of the challenges with dating and courtship is that it is too often based primarily on front stage behavior. We put our best foot forward, trying to impress the person that we are dating. Trying to impress someone with our front stage behavior is okay for the first couple of dates, but in order for a true friendship to develop, a couple needs to interact more in the backstage. It is in our backstage behaviors that we develop a deep, genuine friendship.
This idea about needing to spend time in a potential spouse’s backstage world is consistent with the teachings of our church leaders. One of the most persistent themes of our church leaders when giving counsel to people choosing a spouse is the need to become well-acquainted with someone you are considering marrying. President Thomas S. Monson has said, "It is essential that you become well acquainted with the person whom you plan to marry, that you can make certain that you are looking down the same pathway, with the same objectives in mind. It is ever so significant that you do this." [xxiv]
Elder Lance B. Wickman likewise said, "Courtship is a time for two people to get acquainted. It is a time to get to know someone, his or her interests, habits, and perspective on life and the gospel. It is a time to share ambitions and dreams, hopes and fears. It is a time to test someone’s commitment to gospel living." [xxv]
What are some ways that we can have glimpses into our dating partner’s backstage world and get to know each other better? One way is to spend a lot of time together, (not late at night, of course!) As you spend time together, you will become more comfortable with each other and start “letting your guard down.” Do things that give you the opportunity to talk and get to know each other. Elder Richard G. Scott suggested to men that “When you find you are developing a strong interest in a young woman, ...take her to places that are worthwhile. Show some ingenuity. It is all right to go to the movie after you are married, but it is stupid to do it beforehand. Get to know each other.” [xxvi] As you spend time together, observe how he or she interacts with others. You can learn a lot by studying and observing your potential partner’s behavior and character when they don’t think you are paying attention. Now, I’m not saying that you should all become private detectives and spy on the person you’re dating. But as President James E Faust said “we should keep our eyes wide open before marriage” [xxvii]
As you date, get to know each other, and then fall in love, the depth of your developing friendship will tell you a lot about the quality of your partner, as well as the quality of your relationship. Is your friendship characterized by trust, admiration, dependability, loyalty, humility, honesty, openness, acceptance of each other’s weaknesses, and a willingness to apologize and forgive each other? Does your partner care about your happiness, and are they willing to sacrifice to help you be happy? Like other friendships, the expectation isn’t perfection. After all, good friends don’t expect each other to be perfect. But a friendship that is controlling, belittling, or disrespectful while dating is a serious red flag, warning you that marriage to this person will likely lead to unhappiness and potential disaster. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “In a dating and courtship relationship, I would not have you spend five minutes with someone who belittles you, who is constantly critical of you, who is cruel at your expense and may even call it humor.” [xxviii]
This idea of really getting to know each other by developing a strong friendship is consistent with the Lord’s pattern of providing us with revelation. The Lord has taught that you “must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right,” ( D & C 9:8, italics added). Interestingly, President David O. McKay used the word “study” when he taught, “In choosing a companion, it is necessary to study the disposition…of the one with whom you are contemplating making life’s journey.” [xxix]
Elder Lance B. Wickman taught, "…you need to get acquainted. Know someone well enough to learn his or her heart and character firsthand…. Only after applying your own judgment and good sense to the relationship after a sufficient period of time should you pray for a confirmation." [xxx]
Thus, the formula for wisely choosing a marriage partner is not attraction and then asking for a spiritual confirmation; it isn’t a two-step process. Rather, the formula is attraction, getting to know each other at a deep level, developing a strong friendship, determining that this friendship will work in a covenanted, gospel-centered marriage, and then asking for a spiritual confirmation. Using this formula will lead to a very low probability of making a tragic mistake in whom you marry.
I testify that marriage is the pathway to lasting happiness. Despite what the world is currently saying, marriage offers the surest path to happiness. I’m not saying this from a naïve, uninformed position. I have spent 30 years working with couples who are struggling to make their marriages work. Consequently, I’ve seen the dark side of marriage. But I have seen many, many more couples who continue to maintain a strong, happy relationship regardless of the challenges that they face. Because of that, I remain profoundly optimistic about the happiness that marriage can bring.
May you marry your best friend; I did. My relationship with my wife has brought me an unmeasurable amount of happiness. Life hasn’t always been easy. Like most couples, we’ve experienced stresses and trials. But through it all, we have kept our friendship strong, and, now, after nearly 30 years of marriage, I’m still happily married to my best friend.
As you wisely choose your marriage partner and confidently embrace the institution of marriage, I testify that you, like Nephi, will be able to say that “we lived after the manner of happiness”.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
[ii]History of the Church, 5:134–35
[v]State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2012. Institute for American Values and The Marriage Project at the University of Virginia
[vi]State of our Unions 2012
[viii]Waite, L., & Gallagher, M. (2001). The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially
[ix]State of our Unions 2012, page 79
[x]Wilmoth, J, & Koso, G. (2002). Does marital history matter? Marital status and wealth outcomes among pre-retirement adults. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 64, 265.
[xi]Chun, H., & Lee, I. (2001). Why do married men earn more: Productivity or marriage selection? Economic Inquiry, 39, 307-319.
[xiii]Martin, S. P. (2006) Trends in marital dissolution by women’s education in the United States. Demographic Research, 15, 537-560.
[xiv]State of Our Unions 2012
[xv]Jackson, J. B. (2009). Premarital predictors of marital relationship quality and stability: A meta-analytic study. Unpublished Dissertation, Brigham Young University.
[xvi]The Case for Marriage; Knot Yet
[xvii] June 2011 Ensign, 25
[xx] June 2011, Ensign
[xxix]Gospel Ideals, 1953, 459
April 2010 Ensign