Research tells us that married people are happier than the unmarried, that is, they’re happier than those who are single, separated, divorced, widowed, or simply living together. This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a cause and effect relationship going on here: Get married, be happy. It could be that happy people are more inclined to marry in the first place and that we enjoy staying married to a happy spouse.
While studies (PDF) find that marriage increases a sense of “well-being” (another term for happiness), that state of mind may be only temporary. After a few years, bride and groom seem to return to the level of happiness they enjoyed before the big day.
As Derek Bok points out in The Politics of Happiness, conflicting answers to questions about marriage and happiness may result from observing two different groups: Those who become happier with the years and those whose marriages go sour. When you combine the two, the results may very well cancel each other out.
The end of a marriage. The health benefits of marriage.
So we don’t have a definitive answer to the question “Are married people happier?” What is certain, however, is that the end of a marriage – whether through separation, divorce, or death – is followed by a sharp decline in happiness. On a scale of 100, the average drop in happiness following divorce is 5 points and, following separation, the drop is 8 points. Why the greater unhappiness with separation? Perhaps, as Bok suggests, those who divorce were unhappier with their marriage to begin with, so they now feel some relief. Or perhaps the separated are still adjusting to the change, whereas the divorced have had more time to adapt.
We do know that married people live longer. One study (PDF), for example, found that the impact of marriage on how long we live was much greater than the impact of how much we earn. The longevity benefit for men can be quantified as equivalent to a lifetime of not smoking. The longevity benefits for married women are only half as much as for men. Hmmm.
Parenthood does not bring as much happiness as popular opinion suggests
And what about children? Do they make couples happier? The research results are again mixed.
According to Marsha D. Somers, voluntarily childless couples are just as happy as parents (emphasis added):
While no differences existed in affectional expression or dyadic [couple] consensus, the voluntarily childfree group displayed higher levels of dyadic cohesion and dyadic satisfaction. They also perceived themselves to be negatively stereotyped by relatives and friends.
Studies show that couples with children – especially young children – are prone to much more depression and emotional distress than the childless. And, supporting Somers’ findings, Robin W. Simon says that parents of grown children are no happier than the childless (emphasis added):
[This] contradicts the conventional wisdom that empty-nest parents derive all the emotional rewards of parenthood because they’re done with the financially and psychologically taxing aspects of raising young kids. These research findings, of course, fly in the face of our cultural dogma that proclaims it impossible for people to achieve an emotionally fulfilling and healthy life unless they become parents. And that’s a problem, because the vast majority of American men and women eventually have children, yet conditions in our society make it nearly impossible for them to reap all the emotional benefits of doing so.
Reflecting on the available research on the subject, Derek Bok comments (emphasis added):
Not all investigators agree … and there are surely many parents whose children are a source of joy throughout life. Moreover, whatever parents feel while their children are alive, surveys find that most people consider the death of a child the worst thing that could befall them, and investigators have confirmed that such a loss, especially if it happens unexpectedly, does tend to bring deep and prolonged grief to both parents. All in all, then, the effects of having children are not entirely clear, although the weight of the evidence suggests that parenthood often fails to increase well-being significantly, let alone bring as much happiness to most parents as popular opinion would suggest.
The unhappiness of parents estranged from their children
There was an interesting piece last week in the New York Times on the suffering of parents whose children chose to become estranged. It was very sympathetic to the parents.
A number of Web sites and online chat rooms are devoted to the issue, with heartbreaking tales of children who refuse their parents’ phone calls and e-mail and won’t let them see grandchildren. Some parents seek grief counseling, while others fall into depression and even contemplate suicide.
Last I looked there were almost 900 comments in response to the article, many of them from adult children giving their side of the story. Many were quite blunt.
As a person who is totally estranged from one parent and pretty cool toward the other, I can only say that after you bang your head against a brick wall for years, you sometimes figure out how to leave that wall behind by climbing over and moving on.
Tara Parker-Pope on the “fidelity” gene, more accurately described as the “marital stability” gene: The Science of a Happy Marriage. “[I]t may not be feelings of love or loyalty that keep couples together. Instead, scientists speculate that your level of commitment may depend on how much a partner enhances your life and broadens your horizons.”
Why Gore breakup touched a nerve (CNN)
Many people assume that late-life divorces are precipitated by some crisis, typically a man leaving his wife for another woman. But a 2004 AARP survey of people who divorced at older ages found that two-thirds were initiated by the woman, often to the surprise of the man.
Although men are more likely to instigate a divorce when they have another partner in sight, women are more likely to say they just couldn’t stand to be with this partner any more, which jibes with the research showing that women are physiologically and emotionally more sensitive to the negative effects of an unsatisfying relationship.
… two new trends. The first is that we expect more from marriage than in the past. … The second is that if a marriage ceases to meet their needs, older people have many more alternatives than they used to.
Do Kids Still Matter to Marriage? (The New York Times)
For most of the nation’s history, Americans expected to devote much of their adult lives to the nurture and rearing of children. Life with children has been central to norms of adulthood, marriage and the experience of family life. Today however, this historic pattern is changing. Life without children is becoming the more common social experience for a growing percentage of the adult population.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample Followed for 32 Years (Social Science Research Network)
Divorce is the dissolution of a social tie, but it is also possible that attitudes about divorce flow across social ties. To explore how social networks influence divorce and vice versa, we utilize a longitudinal data set from the long-running Framingham Heart Study. We find that divorce can spread between friends, siblings, and coworkers, and there are clusters of divorcees that extend two degrees of separation in the network. We also find that popular people are less likely to get divorced, divorcees have denser social networks, and they are much more likely to remarry other divorcees. Interestingly, we do not find that the presence of children influences the likelihood of divorce, but we do find that each child reduces the susceptibility to being influenced by peers who get divorced. Overall, the results suggest that attending to the health of one’s friends’ marriages serves to support and enhance the durability of one’s own relationship, and that, from a policy perspective, divorce should be understood as a collective phenomenon that extends far beyond those directly affected.
Commentary from Ross Douthat at the Times, who finds the study contains a “profound conservative insight” and blames no-fault divorce: “[B]y facilitating the divorces of unhappy couples we almost certainly changed the way that happier couples — or couples who had considered themselves happy, at least — thought about their marriages.”
Ezra Klein at the Washington Post disagrees: “[T]he prevalence of divorce doesn’t change the shape your marriage is in. It changes your willingness to face up to the shape your marriage is in.”
All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting. (New York Magazine)
A wonderful essay, with striking photos.
From the perspective of the species, it’s perfectly unmysterious why people have children. From the perspective of the individual, however, it’s more of a mystery than one might think. Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. …
And couples probably pay the dearest price of all. Healthy relationships definitely make people happier. But children adversely affect relationships. As Thomas Bradbury, a father of two and professor of psychology at UCLA, likes to say: “Being in a good relationship is a risk factor for becoming a parent.”
The Un-Divorced (The New York Times)
“Many people I’ve worked with over time enjoy the benefits of being married: the financial perks, the tax breaks, the health care coverage,” said Toni Coleman, a couples therapist in McLean, Va. “They maintain a friendship, they co-parent their kids, they may do things socially together. Sometimes they’re part of a political couple in Washington or have prominent corporate positions. But they just feel they can’t live together.” …
What Ms. Coleman finds surprising is that the primary consideration is practical and financial, not familial. The effect of endless separations on the children rarely seems a priority.
“People split up and have these God-awful joint custody arrangements, so you would think that they stay separated for the kids’ sake, but I’m not seeing that,” she said. “It usually comes down to money.”
How Marriage Survives (Brookings)
How marriage is doing in the recession. (emphasis added)
It used to be that a typical marriage involved specialized roles for the husband and wife. Usually he was in the marketplace, and she was in the home, and this arrangement led to maximum productivity.
But today, when families have easy access to prepared foods, inexpensive off-the-rack clothing and labor-saving technology from the washing machine to the robot vacuum cleaner, there’s much less benefit from either spouse specializing in homemaking. Women, now better educated and with greater control over their fertility, are in the marketplace, too, and married couples have more money, more leisure time and longer lives to spend together. Modern marriages are based not on the economic benefits of playing specialized roles but on shared passions.
This new model of “hedonic marriage” has had an effect on who marries, and when — as research I have conducted with my better half, the economist Betsey Stevenson, has documented. In the old days, opposites attracted; an aspiring executive groom would pair up with a less-educated bride. And they would wed before the stork visited and before the couple made the costly investment of putting the husband through business school.
But today, that same young executive would more likely be half of a power couple, married to a college-educated woman who shares his taste in books, hobbies, travel and so on. Indeed, marriage rates for college-educated women rose sharply through the 1950s and ’60s, and have remained remarkably stable since. These women tend to marry after they have finished college and started their careers.
The decline in marriage, it turns out, is concentrated entirely among women with less education — those who likely have the least to gain from modern hedonic marriage.
the creative destruction of marriage (potlatch)
An amusing discussion by Will Davies on the economics of selling infidelity. Ashley Madison is a discreet dating service for people who are already in a relationship.
Of course infidelity is as old as fidelity. But it is interesting to consider what happens once it is administered and economised. Firstly, it must surely become considerably less fun, as its taboo is lifted. I don’t doubt that there are people many years into marriage who seek out infidelity in a mundane way, to rival the search for other consumer goods; they may be the initial target of Ashley Madison. But beyond these people, infidelity is being parcelled up as safe and predictable, for those who presumably did their best to steer clear of it, until (for whatever unforeseen reason) they couldn’t resist it. Like hipsterism, the promise of administered infidelity is to have one’s cake and eat it, to experience the rush of living on the margins without any of the risks that once went with that.
Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being
(Many of the resources cited below come from Bok’s book.)
Jonathan Gardner and Andrew Oswald, How is mortality affected by money, marriage, and stress?, Journal of Health Economics, May 13, 2004 (PDF)
Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey, Does marriage make people happy or do happy people get married?, The Journal of Socio-Economics, 35 (2006), pp 326-347 (PDF)
Bruno S. Frey, Happiness: A Revolution in Economics
Richard E. Lucas, Time Does Not Heal All Wounds: A Longitudinal Study of Reaction and Adaptation to Divorce, Psychological Science, Vol. 16 No. 12, December 2005 (abstract only)
Marsha D. Somers, A Comparison of Voluntarily Childfree Adults and Parents, National Council on Family Relations, vol 55, 1993 (abstract and first page only)
Robin W. Simon, The joys of parenthood reconsidered, Contexts (abstract only)
Tara Parker-Pope, When the Ties That Bind Unravel, The New York Times, May 3, 2010
Lorraine Ali, Having Kids Makes You Happy. Newsweek, July 7-14 issue, 2008