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In Sickness And In Health: Are Married People Really More Satisfied?

The short answer: yes.

In Sickness And In Health: Are Married People Really More Satisfied?
[Photo: Kichigin via Shutterstock]

Does marriage make people happier? Between high divorce rates and the many young people postponing or forgoing marriage entirely (if their state allows them to marry at all), the answer may seem like a clear “no.”

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But studies have proved otherwise, at least in relatively wealthy Western nations. Surveys show that married people report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction compared to those who never make it to the altar. So you can feel totally justified in passive aggressively hating your Facebook friend who can’t stop gloating about his or her perfect spouse.

Ommaphat Chotirat via Shutterstock

Yet the question remains unanswered still: After all, correlation isn’t causation. Happier people who are healthy, educated, and wealthier are more likely to get married and stay married in the first place. These are the kinds of people who may have lived a satisfied life regardless of their marital status. Other research has suggested that marriage only imparts a few years of happiness just before and after the wedding–after that, the theory goes, people adapt and go back to being as miserable or happy as they were before they put a ring on it.

A new study, a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, tries to disentangle these questions by looking at data from three major surveys–the United Kingdom’s Annual Population Survey, the British Household Panel Survey, and the Gallup World Poll–that all asked respondents to gauge their life satisfaction by various means and report other data, such as relationship and socioeconomic status, over different periods of time.

The study’s authors, Shawn Grover of Canada’s Department of Finance and John F. Helliwell of the Vancouver School of Economics, came up with four results that should buttress anyone who has marriage in their future plans:

  • Marriage leads to satisfaction: “Even when controlling for pre-marital life satisfaction levels, those who marry are more satisfied than those who remain single.”

  • These benefits don’t fizzle out, contrary to other studies: “The benefits of marriage persist in the long-term, even if the well-being benefits are greatest immediately after marriage.”

  • Marriage gets people through their most depressing years: “Marriage seems to be most important in middle age when people of every marital status experience a dip in well-being.”

  • Make your spouse your best friend: “Those who are best friends with their partners have the largest well-being benefits from marriage and cohabitation, even when controlling for pre-marital well-being levels. The well-being benefits of marriage are on average about twice as large for those (about half of the sample) whose spouse is also their best friend.”

This may seem entirely disheartening if you aren’t someone on a path to a lifelong partnership, whether by choice or not. But take heart: The results also strengthen the case against the more depressing idea in happiness research that we are born with an innate level of long-term happiness that is defined by our genes, personality and other factors, and that major life events or improvements in our life’s lot don’t really move the needle all that much. It’s nice to think we have some control over increasing our future happiness, whether we want to achieve that through marriage, money, career advancement, community leadership, or time with friends.

And as for whether kids make you more or less happy–that’s a whole different can of worms.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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