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 

Winter
2014

Explaining (Un)Happiness—Nuptials vs. Neuroticism




Unless it involves same-sex couples, wedlock counts for very little with progressives.  Consequently, when they discuss individual happiness, progressives are likely to look at the psychology of personalities and to ignore marriage.  But a study recently completed at Michigan State University suggests that personalities finally have very little to do with happiness—or unhappiness—while marriage provides a powerful shield against unhappiness.

To determine the relationship between personality and happiness, the Michigan State researchers parse panel data collected between 1991 and 2008 from a nationally representative sample of British households.  The researchers particularly try to see how the Big Five personality traits— Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness—affect the impact of stressful life events (marriage, childbirth, unemployment, and widowhood) on happiness and life satisfaction.  However, careful statistical analysis fails to identify any consistent relationship.  “Personality traits,” the researchers conclude, “did not have consistent moderating effects on the association between stressful life events and life satisfaction over time.”

In contrast, the researchers find that one of the “stressful life events” in view—namely, marriage—powerfully affects long-term happiness and life satisfaction.  The data indicate that marriage occasions a sharp upturn in happiness and life satisfaction, but that the euphoric honeymoon effect wears off in a few years.  “People were no happier after marriage than before marriage,” the researchers conclude.  Yet they still adduce clear evidence “that married people are indeed happier than they would have been if they did not get married.”  The researchers untangle these apparently contradictory findings by explaining that if the married couples had not married, “their life satisfaction would have decreased even more due to normative declines in life satisfaction common to both married and single groups.”  In other words, wedlock may not be a permanent fountain of happiness, but it is an abiding shield against unhappiness and disappointment.  Exposed to that unhappiness and disappointment, unmarried men and women slide into dark emotions that do not invade the lives of their married peers.

Though it may be the last thing progressives want to talk about, enduring marriage—not personality—is the key to long-term happiness and life satisfaction.

(Stevie C. Y. Yap, Ivana Anusic, and Richard E. Lucas, “Does Personality Moderate Reaction and Adaptation to Major Life Events?  Evidence from the British Household Panel Survey,” Journal of Research in Personality 46.5 [2012]: 477-88.)

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