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?

The differences aren’t trivial – in the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes singles on average rate themselves as 6.7 on the 0-10 scale, while married people rate themselves as 7.6. The divorced are on 6.9 and the separated on 6.2. Between 1976 and 2001, the proportion of people who are married dropped by 12 percentage points, enough you would think to all other things being equal cause a sustained drop in average happiness levels, if indeed marriage is what takes you from below 7 to 7.6.

Richard Lucas is the marriage sceptic, and he has an explanation as to why average happiness is not showing a sustained decline. In an article in the Journal of Happiness Studies last year he defended his thesis that marriage does not bring happiness. He has two basic arguments. The first is that there is a selection effect, ie people who are happier to begin with are more likely to get married. The second is that there is an adaptation effect – that happiness provides a temporary boost, but after a few years of marriage the couple returns to their baseline happiness (one of the major theories found in the subjective well-being literature is that most people have a baseline or setpoint level of happiness, and that while events can push people up or down, they tend to revert to their natural, personality-determined level). He uses a panel study, which tracked the same people over the years before and after marriage, to substantiate his case.

On Lucas’s account, then, the kind of figures I cited from the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes are largely a statistical illusion, the result of measuring the happiness of already-happy people who got married plus the added happiness of people who have married in the last few years. He does, however, grant one exception – people who marry at later ages do get lasting benefits.

On the other side of the debate are Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey (a recent journal article on this is on Stutzer’s site). They find similar effects to Lucas – which is just as well, since they are using the same dataset – but note high standard deviations in life satisfaction among married couples.

Contrary to gender equity theory, couples with a high division of labour, essentially a euphemism for the male breadwinner model of marriage, are happier than those in which both work. (Though to avoid bringing the feminist terror down on themselves, these two male authors suggest that this may be because women end up doing all the housework whether they are in paid work or not.) Narrow gaps in education levels also help – presumably giving more shared experiences and conversation topics. So for some couples, adaptation is not complete.

So on the Stutzer and Frey analysis, there are three explanations for the greater happiness of married people evident in the cross-sectional data: selection, temporary high levels of happiness among the newly married, and non-complete adaptation by some couples. Given the nature of the data, nobody can look at one important counter-factual: how happy the people who did get married would have been if they had remained single. The fact that Lucas found that people who married late had lasting boosts to their happiness is perhaps suggestive here – that they were below their happiness setpoint and marriage took them up to it.

This is all interesting (to me, anyway), but I wonder how much we can extrapolate from the dataset being used – the German Socio-Economic Panel – to the effects of well-being and marriage in other countries. One difficulty is that while every country has marriage, it doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere. There are varying degrees of social pressure to get married, and to stay married. In some countries, married women are more likely to work than in others, and the average number of children per couple varies too.

Another potential issue is that though in this post I have followed common practice in using life satisfaction and happiness interchangeably, they are not quite the same. The German question is about life satisfaction, which I take as prompting an overall assessment of one’s life rather than simply asking respondents how they feel, as a happiness question does. Somebody could be satisfied partly because he or she has married – meeting parental expectations and providing a stable family for kids to grow up in – without necessarily rating themselves highly for happiness.

Eventually Australia’s HILDA survey will provide some local answers about how individuals perceive their well-being as they move between being single and being married, and between being married and separated or divorced. When I get time, I will look at some of the older surveys to see if I can find effects consistent with the Lucas argument – essentially, that single people are on average happier now than in the past because more of the already-happy group is postponing marriage or not getting married at all.

But I think what we can say is that marriage produces short to medium term gains, but after that it is a gamble. Some couples do achieve lasting happiness or life satisfaction benefits, but others end up joining one of the unhappiest groups in society, the separated.

23 thoughts on “Does marriage lead to happiness?

  1. Were the happiness/marriage figures linked to wealth?

    SMH article

    Some recent data from the U.S. seems to indicate that marriage rates are dropping amongst the lower socio-economic levels of their society. I’m curious as to whether the same effect is being observed here, and the happiness correlation is linked to wealth, with the separated couples unhappiness due to their drop in wealth after separation (divorce is expensive, having to maintain two households, the relative inefficiency of child support etc).


  2. David – The Stutzer and Frey article controlled for income among the married couples, but did not look at separation.

    Marriage is less common among low SES Australians; I think I have some stats at home. I’d think that this has always been the case, but I will need to check on whether there is a widening gap.


  3. Andrew – Though the General Health Questionnaire used in that study is really a measure of mental distress, rather than well-being.

    I did not put it in my original post, but people with below-average happiness who get married are also more likely to separate and divorce later on, so there is also a selection effect in the very low well-being recorded among separated people compared to other groups.


  4. From what you report, these various analyses don’t take enough account of the historically changing meaning and status of being married or single and how that contributes to happiness. This is most obvious for women for whom being a spinster or ‘left on the shelf’ was a fate too awful to contemplate not so long ago. Now, along with financial independence (and higher education levels) this social censure is fading, though still around. Though i reckon having babies (still largely associated with marriage and coupledom) still has a large hold over women (more than men) in contributing to personal status (motherhood/woman) and meaning in life. Fulfilling this life goal is very likely to be a large part of the happiness factor for marriage/coupledom. Likewise, this may partly explain why some singles are less happy (not marriage in itself). Similarly, loneliness among oldies (because of nuclear lifestyles) is well known so there is no puzzle as to why marriage at later ages would add solidly to happiness.

    Re: gender equity theory and happiness. The HILDA survey shows that there is an enormous amount of stress in families where both are working and confirms that women are doing more of the work. The sense of unfairness about the sharing of household responsibilities, interestingly, tends to be worse in families (with kids) where the woman is working part-time (about 36% of families) and the man full-time. Where both are working full-time there tends to be less inequality in these chores and they both do less housework: probably in part because some of them can afford to buy in domestic help…

    Re: marriage and SES rates. HILDA and other databases show the groups that are tending to marry less these days are 1) blue collar (low educated, low-income) men and 2) to a lesser extent high educated, relatively high income women are also marrying less. This seems to be an artifact of the fact that in the younger generations women are outdoiing men in education levels and this is combing with the old tradition that its more acceptable for men to marry down (in terms of earning power and education) than it is for women. Men probably still marry for looks and women are probably still expecting to be the primary care-giver when they have children.


  5. Following Andrew L – getting divorced made me very happy. As did getting remarried (err – maybe wrong word – I didn’t remarry the same individual. Although my parents did do that).


  6. Yes, of course.

    “Marriage combines the maximum level of temptation with the maximum levl of opportunity” – Benjamin Franklin


  7. There’s nothing scientific in what I am about to say, but here goes.

    I reckon that one of the reasons for a significant loss of sense of purpose or meaning for many people today is that too many of them have forgotten the fundamental biological purpose of life – to have children and enjoy them. Marriage is the intended stable basis on which this fundamental thing can best be achieved. In that sense it’s inherently a good thing, and is not something that should be over-analysed. Too much thinking about happiness can itself lead to unhappiness, I suspect.


  8. “Though the General Health Questionnaire used in that study is really a measure of mental distress, rather than well-being”

    I think of them as measuring the same underlying stuff. See for example Blanchflower & Oswald’s recent paper that ‘validates’ cross-country happiness measures by showing that they correlate negatively with hypertension.


  9. Steven, I suspect you may well be correct. But I find it kind of depressing that the meaning of life is to create more life. Er, for what purpose? Maybe as Agent Smith said in the Matrix, human beings are a virus.


  10. Rajat, without getting into semantics too much, and bearing in mind I am partly thinking out loud here, I would say it’s the purpose of life to have more life, not the meaning of life. The meaning comes from how those lives are lived. But with no human life at all, there would no sentient meaning either. Well, apart from a bunch of whales saying “nice bunch of krill today, hey George?”

    There is an existential mystery at the heart of the universe, but speculating on that is part of the fun. The universe, either by plan or accident, has become self reflective through us. It would seem much more depressing to me if, through misadventure or pessimism, the mechanism of that self reflection went into suicidal decline, rather than expanding out into the universe.

    This is why people should marry and have children!


  11. There are three claims in the articles and the comments I wouldn’t believe without further evidence:

    1) “and women are probably still expecting to be the primary care-giver when they have children”

    The suggestion here is that there is a relationship between the extent that the man earns more than the women and a womens expectations of being a primary care giver. It may well turn out to be true based on practicalities (you go back to work because I earn less than you), but I’d like to see evidence that it is actually incoporated into people’s judgements at the time of marriage.

    2) Narrow gaps in education levels also help – presumably giving more shared experiences and conversation topics.

    This is surely confounded with IQ. I wonder how much unique variance educational levels actually explain, especially after removing out selection bias effects (e.g., I met you at university and we got married).

    3) I reckon that one of the reasons for a significant loss of sense of purpose or meaning for many people today is that too many of them have forgotten the fundamental biological purpose of life – to have children and enjoy them. Marriage is the intended stable basis on which this fundamental thing can best be achieved.

    This sounds like geneticist talk to me — trying to find simple rational reasons for exceedingly complicated behavior when perhaps there is no simple reason to be found. If it was really a fundamental biological purpose, I don’t see how we could have have gay humans, monkeys, flys.. etc. Also, the notion that people have children to help enjoy life seems like a very recent (and hence not biologically plausible) idea to me. I’m sure through most of history (and throughout the rest of the animal kingdom) this aspect of having children has had approximately zero weighting (think of what it would be like as a caveman — I’ll have 10 children with 3 females because I can, or life from the start of civilization — I’ll 10 children with 1-3 females, whether they want to or not, who will then look after them, whether they want to or not, whilst I go out and do male-things)


  12. I agree with Fish. Andrew is suggesting that if the happiness levels are steady over time while marriage numbers decline, it means that marriage does not inrease happiness. But this logic does not take into account that all other variables, such as our perception of the institution of marriage, are not steady, but vary over time too. I have no idea how they vary, but I think these trends may be responsible for the observations.


  13. Sacha – Rajat’s wedding was one of the two I attended over the weekend, so I hope he will not be reading blogs and responding to comments on his honeymoon:)


  14. I accept the possibility of the selection effect mentioned by Richard Lucas but what about the loyalty effect? I asked some married couples who I knew were having real difficulties in their relationships and they rated themselves as seven’s. I thought loyalty was certainly a factor and this doesn’t apply in the same way to the unmarried.

    I train at a gym which has a number of very beautiful physique competitors. I asked one I know very well how she rated herself out of 10. She saw herself as a seven. I asked a guy I knew who didn’t know her how he rated her out of 10. He said she was 11 out of 10.

    What says that the happiness evaluations people made many years ago were made on the same basis as they are now?

    We are not measuring objective or accurate factors so to get locked into the magic of dissecting the not so far apart numbers is not a good way.


  15. >> “If it [life] was really a fundamental biological purpose, I don’t see how we could have have gay humans, monkeys, flys.. etc.”

    Obviously, without the fundamental biological purpose, there would be no humans, monkeys, flys — gay or not.

    Your comment may be a victim of thinking on the run so maybe you would clarify your actual objection to the notion that “Marriage is the intended stable basis on which this fundamental thing [creating new life] can best be achieved.”

    Human generativity is both-sexed. Human community is both-sexed. The family, founded on marriage, is intended as the stable basis for human community. Marriage is the basic human community that pre-exists the wider society. It is founded on the nature of humankind — two-sexed — and the nature of human procreation — both-sexed — and, thus, provides contingency for *responsible* procreation.

    We are each, as part of the both-sexed procreative duo, directly responsible for the children we create — barring tragedy and misfortune.

    Human happiness is not guaranteed, but marriage is indeed how we adapt to our physiology and biology. It is this cultural adaptation that is featured so strongly in the variability of the protocols of marriage but not in the core of this social institution.

    So I’d agree with the summation offered by steven_1941 at
    March 16th, 2007 18:57.


  16. I read your intial post, and the subsequent comments with interest.

    The first question that came to my mind in thinking of your question was “how does he define happiness?”

    If you are talking about happiness in the modern sense, which Merriam Webster on-line defines as:
    a state of well-being and contentment, or
    a pleasurable or satisfying experience
    then the answer is “no.” Marriage does not on average lead to happiness.

    If however, you are speaking of happiness in its older – more classical sense – say as Aristotle talks about it in the Nichomachean Ethics. Defined as a life of virtue according to reason, then the answer should be “yes,” in so far as the parties have a right understanding of marriage.

    Some of the commenters above have put an emphasis on the primary procreative purpose of marriage. I think this is a mistake. In the traditional Judeo-Christian view the ultimate purpose of marriage is the sanctification of the spouses. Procreation is penultimate. From this standpoint, the traditional Christian view of marriage – as a state that leads to sanctification and eternal reward is entirely “sympatico” with the Aristotelian view of a life of virtue according to reason, or perhaps more properly a life of virtues “practiced” and being governed by reason.


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