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Does marriage make us happier?

Christine Carter, director, Greater Good Parents | April 20, 2011

Perhaps because I’m divorced, I wonder a lot about whether I’d be happier if I were married.

Admittedly, I’m already a very happy person; I pretty much max out most happiness scales (like these, here). But I’ve made a career out of becoming an ever-happier person—and teaching my children how to do the same—by doing all the things that research suggests makes people happier. And so, I can’t ignore one of the biggies: Marriage.

Happy CoupleAs annoying to divorced and never-married singles everywhere as it is, mountains of research shows that being married has pretty large positive effects on husbands and wives. I’ve been reviewing all this research in preparation for a webcast and seminar I’m doing with Fred Luskin at the end of this month about the “Science of Great Romantic Relationships.” Married people tend to be happier, more satisfied with their lives, and less depressed. They tend to be healthier, too.

In a way, this makes perfect sense. Marriage is, for many, a tried and true way to feel less lonely: Commit to someone for the rest of your life, and hopefully you’ve gained a constant companion. (And, hopefully, their presence is positive!)

Avoiding loneliness is a great way to feel happier and less depressed; our social ties predict our health and happiness. (If this is news to you, and you’re interested in the science around this, I highly recommend you read the “health and happiness” chapter of Robert Putnam’s bookBowling Alone.)

But then again, I’m always citing research in my talks that shows happy people are more likely to marry. So which is it?

Does marriage make people happy, or do happy people get married?

Fortunately there was a study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics a few years ago with that exact title. Researchers Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey answer this question with conviction, using a study that tracked many thousands of Europeans over a 17-year period.

They found, like many researchers before them, that married people are considerably more satisfied with their lives than unmarried folks. Romantic partners that live together are also happier than singles (though not as happy as the married people).

But the answer to my question original question is this: Happy people are, in fact, more likely to get married. In other words, married people start off happier than those who remain single. (They also start off happier than the people who eventually divorce.)

I certainly fit this pattern. Although I’m a very happy person now, I was one of the more anxious people I knew at the time I got married, and anxiety is not a happiness habit. I’d guess my life satisfaction score at the time I got married would have resembled the average scores of married people who would later divorce.

So where does that leave me now? I’m happy. And so, even at the age of 39, this makes me more likely, statistically speaking, to marry again.

This isn’t bad news for me, because marriage is still one of those things that is likely to make me even happier than I already am. That is because not all of the “happiness gap” between single people and married people can be accounted for by how happy people start off, before they ever marry. Even after taking into account how happy people are before they marry, marriage still does increase the odds that we are healthier and happier than if we remain single.

Where does this leave you? It’s easy to get discouraged by some of this research: If you’re not an especially happy person, does that mean you’re not likely to get married—and receive the extra happiness boost that marriage might provide?

But if you’ve been reading this blog and become at all familiar with the science of happiness, you know there’s more to the story than that. Our happiness level isn’t just a fact of life; a significant chunk of it is under our control.

So here’s yet another reason to start practicing happiness habits: They’ll increase your odds of getting happily hitched, if that is what you want.

***

Interested in learning about the science of great romantic relationships?  Please join Fred Luskin and I for a daylong workshop (and webinar, if you aren’t local).  Come with your partner, if you’ve got one, or come alone: this will be a very practical workshop designed to give you fun and simple tools to improve your love life.  More information here.

Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s Raising Happiness blog on The Greater Good.

Comments to “Does marriage make us happier?

  1. Well if your married with a family, consider yourselves very Extremely lucky since many of us are Not single by choice.

  2. Not in all cases i don’t think marriage makes you happier. I have been married for 44 years nearly. I married at 23 years old and my husband was 28. Yes we have had our up’s and down’s like most couples. And the marriage has been happy. But i have three friends who have now divorced in their 60’s after 40 years of marriage.

    And i also have friends who have been together without marriage for many years. I don’t altogether think that a marriage licence always guarantees longevity in a relationship and being happy together for life.

  3. Some people prefer being by themselves and maybe around like minded people, but don’t want other people’s problems and issues. They don’t want to sacrifice for another person or kids and end up with nothing and miserable. Many different life paths. They want to have a nice body, be healthy, travel, have great friends, hobbies, the list goes on.

    Know a lot of people who would get divorced in a heartbeat if the money was there, because they feel overwhelmed and like they lost themselves. They want to have the freedom to do what they want, and not have someone else make them feel guilty.

  4. I would certainly say so, and it really does make you much happier and very healthy too. Many people out there that have been Blessed by God to be married with a family should be very thankful, since many of us were Punished by God to be Single with No Family. And many of us that are Single now it wasn’t our choice either, since it is very hard for us to meet a Good Woman to settle down with and have a family.

  5. Why is the divorce rate for first marriages alomst 50%, second marriages 60% and third marriages 73%? If you’re with a person just to be “less lonely,” what level of real happiness does that really bestow?

    Many people live in denial that they are just plain not happy anymore being with their spouse. Why do you think “gray divorces” are skyrocketing? Could it be that some people are finally admitting to themselves that they just don’t want to be with their spouse anymore? After years and years together, the bloom almost always comes off the rose. With people living so much longer these days, even if you’re 50 or 55, do you really want to still be with this person for the NEXT 25 or 30 years with this person?

    What is the common sense answer to that question? With the divorce statistics the way they are, and with many people on their second and third marriages, the odds are that MOST marriages will end in divorce.

  6. Marriage is an obsolete and ridiculous ritual which confines a person (especially the male) to a dictate of monogamy which runs counter to his inherent evolutionary and biological needs. It has been proven in many studies that a man’s testosterone levels drop when in a committed monogamous relationship, married or not, and also when he fathers and cares for a child which is an entirely separate issue:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testosterone#Romantic_relationships_and_fatherhood
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0018506X03001259
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2310-married-men-have-less-testosterone.html
    http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/09.19/01-testosterone.html

    One can still be faithful, honest, and transparent without that unnecessary piece of paper which is nothing more than a free pass for the bureaucrats and their lawyers to control and exact money from the spouses when it goes sideways.

  7. The question is a good one, but it’s important to make a distinction here and maybe a relatively obvious one, only those folks in a happy marriage are happier. Marriage counselors see lots of couples who are married and yet are distressed. With success during counseling couples grow happier over time. It’s not that marriage makes us happier it’s that our partner makes us happier. Once the partner ceases to make us happy, the marriage effect is no more.

  8. Two people should agree to become the partners in a joint venture. Marriage is like a joint venture for me. We both possess 50% of the capital, but are willing to contribute 60 each. I love and I am loved in return, I take care of children/house matters and my husband takes primary care of financial resources. The difference is that while profit is the goal of any business enterprise, happiness of us two and our children is the main objective in our family.

  9. i read this article n some comments but what i thing is that marrige does not make a person happy.It is feelings between two persons which make person happy and some time sad.So if you have a person to share every moment of your life and that person care for your feelings this makes you happy always but when person start to ignoring,avoiding your feelings than your marrige can not make you happy.It means care of feelings of your partner makes your partner happy.And most romantic partners cares for their partner’s feelings.When in marrige both partners care for each other feeling than your marrige make you happy and if you dont care of your partner feelings than it make u sad.So simple

      • The question is predicated on the idea that we get married to become happy. Is that what marriage is about? When we don’t get happy we say that there is something wrong with the marriage. No! There was something wrong with why wanted to get married in the first place.
        Marriage is the foundation of society. There is a more transcendental reason for marriage to which the participants should submit. In the same way that employees submit to a company’s reason for existing for the progress of the company, and by extension the progress of the employees, spouses should submit to the function of marriage. The function of marriage is to provide a safe environment for its members to grow and fulfill their lives. Society gains if its members are fulfilled – not necessarily married since you can be fulfilled while not being married. To assert that self-fulfillment results in the destruction of the marriage is to demonstrate that one made a mistake in choosing to get married.
        Therefore, I think it is a wrong question.

      • i, mostly think that this issue is very subjective and anyone, everyone has their experiences to tell. there are many factors to a happy or sad marriage. but the main thing here is that you we’re in love and willing when you got married, it’s the process of “making it” or “marriage” that’s where the anxiety follows. but having a positive and honest attitude fixes all.

        read more from my blog here.

  10. Regardless of the commitment, be it marriage, business or eduction, it takes an incredible amount of effort to find fulfillment relative to one’s definition of happiness.

    After graduating from Cal, I traveled to the other side of the world where I met my wife. Five years, two beautiful children, and we still make time for each other. But we are different in so many ways–different native languages, different culture, different levels of education, and nearly 10 years apart. What works for us is keeping our expectations inline with our roles in the household. I run Baba Kevin’s Barbecue in Taiwan and she takes care of the kids. She organizes family trips and I take care of finances. Fitting into roles like these (just examples) really helps avoid conflict, but it takes a lot of effort to first identify these roles and then agree to take them on.

    Part of a healthy, happy relationship is continuously learning one another and what it is that makes each other happy. No doubt communication and respect are at the top of the list, but I really can’t buy into “studies” that assume what happiness is and then grade happiness for any one person at any given time, married or not.

    Just my two cent. But eatin’ lip smackin’ BBQ spare ribs always makes me happy!

  11. This is fascinating and it fits right into I theory I’ve developed about love and marriage.

    Based on my own, admittedly limited experience, I believe that many people (I can’t guess the percentage, but I think it may coincide closely with the rate of divorce) do not marry for love — at least, not mad, passionate love. They marry for companionship, or financial security, or because they want to start a family, or out of a sense of societal obligation (or a combination of all of those). Sadly, some very shallow individuals marry simply because they want a wedding.

    In other words, a significant of marriages occur because people settle. Now, if this were India, where the expectation is that you don’t marry for love, you marry for companionship and security and to start a family, and love is icing on the cake, then maybe those people who “settle” would be more content with their choice. But our society sets the ideal as mad, passionate love. And so those people who “settle” are deeply unsatisfied with their choice. But they can’t admit to themselves that they have settled, because in a deep sense, that means they are living a lie.

    Meanwhile, the lucky few who have met the love of their life and are marrying him/her — those are the ones who are happily married 20, 30, 50 years down the line. Now, I realize bigger life changes can interfere with that happiness. But if you start off blissfully and madly in love, then I think your relationship is going to be much more resilient through those ups and downs. And you will feel much more fulfilled — sexually and spiritually.

    And I also agree that you are much more likely to meet that “soul mate” when you are happy or fulfilled, or at least happy enough to be pursuing your passions — because if you are pursuing your passions, your path will very likely lead to a person who shares them. And for that, I speak from experience.

    The irony is that I never believed in soul mates or true love till I met mine. And I don’t think that it’s a smart strategy to wait for “the one” — especially if you want children who are biologically yours.

    But I do think that we need to get real and recognize that all marriages did not start with two people falling in love. Because that’s more rare than our society would like to admit.

  12. I am a Cal alumni and not married. I really enjoyed reading this article. Shoot, I want to get to know the writer of this article, Christine Carter. She is a cutie. I wonder why her first marriage didn’t work?

    J.J.

  13. I agree with Anthony St. John – Mutual Respect, Personal Integrity and Love. It all needs to work in harmony.
    I’m currently reading for the 2nd time “Influence, The Power to Change Anything” the book made a statement that was so profound to me regarding marriage because its based on “our” behaviors. Reading this blog, I assoicated this statement from the book (which in line w/Anthony’s statment)with happiness in a marriage. If….a couple opens up a tough conversation with the statements that communicate respect and shared purpose, and halt emotional escalations in a respectful way to take a time out, the future will be entirely different…….. I would say that contributes to happiness

  14. Thanks for the piece.

    I think if spouses compete with each other in goodness, the relationship will last until death. I also think there’s a stigma attached to divorce. Something divorce is necessary and in these instances, we must not look down upon it otherwise it can cause serious damage to the relationship and affect any children.

    Keep up the research. I look forward to hearing about your thoughts on marriage in different cultures and religions and how they’re defined.

  15. Lovely comment and I mostly agree. I was married to a PhD candidate in the physical chem department when a senior there and found not as much bliss as you have but agree with your principle. Happy many more years is my wish for you! and Happy Earth Day.

  16. The top three requirements for a happy marriage are:

    Mutual Respect
    Personal Integrity
    Love

    If you do not at least meet all three of those requirements, don’t even think about marriage.

    America’s hellacious divorce rate proves that.

  17. I’ve been married for 22 yrs, and I think it has made both of us more healthier and happier. We continue to grow together and as individuals. We challenge one another to be better.

  18. Christine, we found the best way to guarantee a Happy Marriage is to marry a Cal classmate. We met in the Coop 50 years ago and life has been as good as it gets ever since. Basically we created our own set cultural values and that has worked great.

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