The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Marriage, Health, and Happiness in East Asia

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Marriage, many have noted, tends to make individuals healthier and happier in a number of ways and through a variety of mechanisms. Man is truly not made to be alone, it seems. But most of such research has been conducted in the West, with relatively little attention paid to whether this relationship holds true in the rest of the world. Now, researchers from Waseda University in Tokyo seek to remedy this gap, by studying the relationship between marriage and health in the East Asian countries of China, Japan, and Korea. 

“Previous findings,” the authors begin, “support the positive impact of marriage on health, known as the marriage protection effect [MPE].” The authors continue to list three reasons for further analysis of this issue. First, “few studies have investigated differences in MPE between a pair of different age cohorts.” For their study, they chose the age of 50 as a generational cut-off, comparing individuals older than 50 with those younger than 50. Second, the authors highlight, “there is little evidence to indicate whether and how intra-couple similarity in socioeconomic characteristics affects health status.” More specifically, the authors seek to understand how “intra-couple concordance/disparity of education achievement” interacts with health, and whether couples with a similar degree of education fare better than those who are more unmatched in terms of educational achievement. Third, the authors wish to address the lack of research on the relationship between health and marriage in the East Asian region specifically.

Using data from the 2010 version of the East Asia Social Survey, the researchers study the effect of marriage on the self-reported health and happiness of respondents. (Unfortunately, the researchers choose to lump together both married and cohabiting couples in one group—likely obscuring notable differences between the two, given the oft-noted instability of cohabiting unions.) For health status, the researchers used four indicators: Physical Component Summary, Mental Component Summary, Self-rated Health, and Happiness Level.

The results are mixed, and mostly inconsistent across countries. There are two findings, however, that stand out. The first is that in East Asia, as in the West, marriage makes individuals happier. “Only the coefficients of [happiness],” the researchers summarize, “are almost always significantly positive in all countries (9.2% in China, 23.3% in Japan, 13.6% in Korea), implying better happiness levels for married people under 50.” The results are similar for the older generation, leading the researchers to conclude, “In other words, marriage may make people feel happier regardless of generation.” 

The second notable finding is that “the MPE [health-marriage protection effect] is more significant for people 50+ than for those 50-, at least in China and Japan.” Why does marriage seem to have a greater positive effect on health for the older generation than for the younger? The researchers suspect that this difference “may reflect different stages of industrialization, socioeconomic development, and demographic transitions from one generation to another in each country. Due to the progress of industrialization and modernization, the importance of marriage [and therefore of family] on health has been diluted because many substitutional entities, such as education, public health care . . . and the social security system have gradually taken over the role of marriage for health protection.” 

In other words, the positive relationship between marriage and health has deteriorated over time as extra-familial institutions (specifically state institutions) have stepped up. The authors don’t say, but one may wonder whether East Asia has seen some of the family decline that the West has, and if, as family institutions have begun to decay, the state has been forced to step up in taking care of citizens’ health. This is a pattern the West has seen for some time—as family fails, state steps in. 

(Rong Fu and Haruko Noguchi, “Does Marriage Make Us Healthier? Inter-Country Comparative Evidence from China, Japan, and Korea,” PLoS ONE 11.2 [February 10, 2016]: e0148990.