In our country’s founding document Freedom is listed as one of the foundational, self evident, divinely granted human rights…along side ‘The Pursuit of Happiness.’ We have since generally assumed that freedom and happiness are strongly correlated. But this is an assumption that is worth revisiting. Surely, slavery, communism and fascism impinge on personal happiness…but within the context of most western societies, does increased freedom actually increase happiness?
Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard College Professor of Psychology says no.
In his excellent book Stumbling on Happiness he cites a study in which students in a photography class produced a dozen black and white photographs and printed their two best and were allowed to keep one. The students were divided into two groups, 1) the escapable group and 2) the inescapable group. The first group could exchange their photograph for the other one at any time in the future and the second group had to make a final, irrevocable decision on which photograph they would keep. Then the researchers followed up on the students and ‘measured’ their satisfaction with the photographs. Which do you suppose were more satisfied? If our fundamental assumptions that self determination and increased options produce happiness are true, then we would expect the first group to be the most satisfied. But the opposite was true.
“The escapable group liked their photographs less(emphasis original) than the inescapable group…Apparently, inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defenses that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate this will happen. Our failure to anticipate that inescapability will trigger our psychological immune system (hence promote our happiness and satisfaction) can cause us to make some painful mistakes…but most people seem to prefer more freedom to less…
...Our fetish for freedom leads us to patronize expensive department stores that allow us to return merchandise rather than attend auctions that don’t, to lease cars at a dramatic markup rather than buying them at a bargain, and so on…
...Committed owners attend to a car’s virtues and overlook its flaws, thus cooking the facts to produce a banquet of satisfaction, but the buyer for whom escape is still possible is likely to evaluate the new car more critically, paying special attention to its imperfections as she tries to decide whether to keep it…We have no trouble anticipating the advantages that freedom may provide, but we seem blind to the joys it can undermine.”
And this, in part, is why I believe marriage is vastly underrated. Marriage is not exactly at the peak of its popularity, particularly among young men. I believe that one of the fundamental reasons for marriage’s disrepute is this perception that limiting our freedom is the surest way to limit our happiness. It is ironic that such a widely held tenet of our cultural narrative is based on a nearly universal misunderstanding of how our brains work.
But marriage only works if it is an ‘all in’ proposal. ‘For better or worse’ is the currency of marital satisfaction. It is the engine of contentment. According to Gilbert, inescapability is the catalyst of disproportionate focus on the admirable aspects of your selection. It is an unconscious building block of a life of gratitude. Our brains are wired in such a way that frequent re-evaluation undermines our happiness.
The volitional and intentional limitation of options is a counterintuitive path to happiness. In his theological work on marriage, Christopher Ash, argues that this is because marriage is the way of grace over works:
“When we focus on the gradually deepening (or evaporating) relational intimacy as the locus of marriage, paradoxically a terrible insecurity is engendered…To live outside is to live by works, to be constantly on our best behavior, to be only as good as the last time. To live inside (the covenant of marriage) is to live in grace, responding freely to unconditional pledged love, not to have failure and personal inadequacies drive us to paralyzing despair.”
It is only when marriage is seen for what it truly was meant to be, that the Scriptures’ repeated comparison of marriage and the gospel begin to make sense. And, of course, the principal that limiting one’s freedom can actually augment one’s happiness has spiritual implications beyond marriage. A common objection to Christianity is that it limits our freedom and, thus, our potential for happiness. But, deconstructing the fundamental connection between freedom and happiness destabilizes this objection.
I think the Psalmist essentially articulates the same thing Gilbert reports when he says: “Yahweh, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”
This post was written while listening to the Rise Against station on Pandora_____________
 Or manipulating our passion for freedom, depending on one’s political perspective.
 At Harvard University.
 This is not nearly the saccharine self help book it sounds like. Rather, it is a well written and insightful review of recent psychological research on the phenomena of human happiness and why our brains are not particularly good at it (or, conversely, why we are sometimes better at it than the ‘facts’ warrant).
 So, I am what is called a ‘hard’ scientist. I realize that moniker is self serving, but if you are skeptical about how this was ‘measured,’ um, well, me too.
 In fact, this was another facet of this study. Several of the students were asked to predict if they would be more satisfied if they had the option to exchange and most said they would.
 Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness – p 183-5
 In its covenantal, vowish, form rather than its dissoluble social contract form.
 Chuck Klosterman has a great quote in Killing Yourself to Live that really encapsulates the contemporary perception of marriage. He seems genuinely confused at the controversy in the Episcopal Church about same-sex marriage and quips “In my opinion we must legalize gay marriage. Gay men are the only men in America who still want to be married.”
 Again, ironic in the Alanis Morissette ‘as it has come to be know’ usage of the word.
 Marriage: Sex in the Service of God p 74-5
 Ps 16:5-6