Archive for March 16th, 2007

Does marriage lead to happiness?

I’m attending two weddings this weekend, from which I hope two long and happy marriages will result. Having no insights of my own to add to the topic of marriage and happiness, I took another look at the subjective well-being literature on the subject. As I noted in a Catallaxy post eighteen months ago, this area of research is surprisingly controversial, with one prominent happiness researcher denying that marriage brings most people any lasting additional happiness.

One point that is not in dispute is that, at any given time, married people are happier than single people. I had a look at the most recent Australian survey to ask about happiness, the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, which finds the same relativities persistently found across time and around the world.

78% of married people rate themselves as 7 or above on 0-10 scale, compared to 63% of the never married. People in de facto relationships were similar to married people in the proportion in the normal 7+ range, but married people were considerably more likely to be in the very happy 9-10 range, 32% compared to 21% among de facto couples (even though you would think that married people would have had longer to grow bored of each other). Separated people are the least happy – 53% at 7 or above, but they get over it, as divorced people are about as happy as the never-married singles.

One reason for some initial doubt that marriage has the widely-assumed happiness benefits is that average happiness has been stable over time. Though it has fluctuated a little between surveys over sixty years, it has fluctuated without trend. Clive Hamilton and many others have seized on this as evidence that greater income does not make you happy. But if marriage makes people happier, or conversely non-marital states make you less happy, shouldn’t the declining share of the adult population who are married have led to a declining average level of happiness?
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