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Happiness Is Dull

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy

What do you think…true or false?

Believe me, I am not out to dis Tolstoy. Anna Karenina is one of my all-time favorite books and I reread it every few years.

But this famous quote…I don’t know. I’m not sure I buy it. To say that all happy families are alike is to say that all families are alike and goodness knows that’s not true.

Today, of course, “family” varies widely: two-parent families, single-parent families, same-sex couple families, families created from the detritus of broken families. But even in Tolstoy’s day all families weren’t alike. Some families were wealthy, some were dirt poor. Some included one child, some included 12. Some families were happy despite hardship, some were happy in luxury.

I guess what bums me out about this quote is the way it seems to trivialize happiness. Happy, shmappy—only unhappy is really interesting.

Have you ever noticed how few happy marriages are depicted in movies and literature? Marriages are more often strained, confining, cruel, or dull. Of course, a good story requires conflict, but you rarely see happy couples joining forces to resolve a conflict outside the marriage together—more often than not, conflict pulls them apart.

(Although remember the TV show Hart to Hart? There was a happy couple working together. Ghost Whisperer also had an element of that, although the husband in that was like chick flick porn. He was loving, understanding, gentle, tender, and he looked good in a tank top.)

One of the best novels I’ve ever read about marriage is called A Happy Marriage: A Novel. It is a beautiful portrait of a long happy marriage, though it’s not happy all the way through. Just like real life, it’s full of tension, and misunderstanding, estrangement and reconciliation. But the sum of it all is happiness—and this even despite the fact that the wife dies in the end. (And that’s not a spoiler—you learn it in the first chapter.)

Maybe we don’t yet understand the nuances of happiness and so think of it only in the broadest strokes—flat fields of color rather than the painstaking pointillism of unhappiness.

But I would like to think it’s possible for happy families to be as interesting as unhappy ones, wouldn’t you?

My book, The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be released December 4, just in time for party/festive/family-togetherness season.

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Happiness Is Dull

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2012). Happiness Is Dull. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 30 Jul 2012
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