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

Fostering Mental Health? Wedding Licenses, Not College Diplomas or Employment Contracts

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Social engineers often promote education and employment as the keys to improving Americans’ lives. And few would deny that education and employment do deliver benefits. However, in a study recently completed at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, researchers conclude that an intact marriage predicts favorable mental health outcomes better than does a college degree or a job.

The Queen’s scholars launch their study interested in both mental health and mental well-being. The researchers borrow from the World Health Organization its definition of mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” In “mental well-being,” the researchers see “a related concept . . . generally seen as covering both the subjective experience of affect and life satisfaction, as well as psychological functioning, good relationships with others and self-realisation.” The researchers thus view “mental health and mental well-being . . . [as] two distinct, but correlated, continua in populations.”

To identify the “explanatory variables” for both mental health and mental well-being, the Queen’s scholars examine a wide range of data collected in 2010-2011 from 1,209 adults living in Belfast. As the authors of this study weigh their data, they limn a statistical connection between being “educated to degree level and not being unemployed” on the one hand and “better mental well-being” on the other. But college degrees and employment do not predict mental health.

However, as they pore over these data, the Queen’s scholars find that “certain personal attributes” foster “both mental health and mental well-being.” One of these personal attributes is the “marital status of married or cohabiting.” That is, like living in a satisfactory neighborhood or enjoying good self-rated health, “living with a partner” stands out as one of the “significant explanatory variables of both mental health and well-being.” (Though the social scientists responsible for this study are following the political orthodoxy of our time when they combine the data for cohabiting partners with those for married couples, they are almost certainly obscuring part of the benefits of wedlock, since a number of studies have established that cohabiting unions are generally weaker, more fragile, and of poorer quality than marriages.)  

No doubt, policymakers will continue to search for ways to give more people a college education and gainful employment. But readers of this new study from Northern Ireland may well conclude that what men and women need more than such education and employment is the social connection that comes with wedding vows.


(Helen McAneney et al., “Individual Factors and Perceived Community Characteristics in Relation to Mental Health and Mental Well-Being,” BMC Public Health 15 [2015]: 1,237, Web.  Emphasis added.)