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
Decades of research have demonstrated that married individuals tend to be more satisfied with their lives than are unmarried individuals. Some recent and widely cited studies suggest, however, that life satisfaction for marrieds rises for a brief time after marriage, then settles back down to levels more typical of unmarrieds. Now, researchers from Canadian universities seek to understand which is more likely.
The researchers first outline “two sorts of threat” to what they describe as a “growing interest” in using measures of well-being as indicators of progress. “First,” they write, “if major changes in life circumstances have only temporary effects on life evaluations, then this casts doubt on the value of life satisfaction as a welfare measure. Second, if the cross-sectional and panel methodologies give very different estimates of the value of marriage,” then there is reason to suspect both methodologies. More specifically, they say, those who are married also “tend to be more social, healthier, better educated and have more engaging jobs, all features of life likely to increase happiness with or without marriage.” So does marriage really matter all that much, or only for a brief time, or is it that the types of people getting married tend to be happier, anyway?
To answer these questions, the researchers seek to examine the “size and permanence of the effects of marriage on subjective well-being.” They glean their data from the British Household Panel Survey and the United Kingdom’s Annual Population Survey. Using a number of different methods, they arrived at findings that should be heartening for those already married. First, even with controls, the married are happier than the unmarried. Second, and contrary to some previous work, they find that the benefits of marriage are long-term, “even if the well-being benefits are greatest immediately after marriage.” Second, although the “U-shape” relationship between life satisfaction and age exists for both married and unmarried—life satisfaction decreases for a time, then rises again with age—the trough is deepest for the unmarried. The most significant benefits of marriage occur when individuals are in their 40s and 50s. And fourth, friendship seems to be an important mechanism through which marriage increases happiness. Those who report that their spouse is their best friend see the greatest gains from marriage.
The researchers do highlight one important limitation to their study: The findings are “directly applicable only in those western countries for which there are suitable longitudinal surveys.” Nonetheless, this is an important contribution to the literature on marriage, demonstrating that though the “honeymoon phase” may be the most obvious time in which married people are clearly happier, the benefits of marriage persist for the long term.
(Shawn Grover and John F. Helliwell, “How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness,” Journal of Happiness Studies 20 : 373-90.)