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Marriage has long been an important social institution, and one that has consistently been linked to happiness. But as Dr. Kelly Musick, Associate Professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology points out, in recent decades western societies have experienced increases in cohabitation, before or instead of marriage, and increases in children born outside of marriage. And with these changes, the boundaries of marriage have been become blurred, and so has the question: Does marriage lead to happiness?


To answer this question, Dr. Musick drew a study sample from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) of 2,737 single men and women, 896 of whom married or moved in with a partner over the course of 6 years, then used a fixed effects approach to compare several key areas of well-being, happiness, health, and social ties before and after marriage. Unlike previous studies that had compared the happiness levels of married people to single people at a fixed point in time, Musick wanted to know what changes when people move from being single to married or cohabitating.


The answer is that we are happier – but only for a short time. Dr. Musick’s results showed a spike in well-being immediately following both marriage and cohabitation – what we might call the honeymoon period – where, compared to singles, married and cohabitating people had higher levels of happiness and fewer depressive symptoms (Musick, 2012). One reason for this might be that marriage and cohabitation both resulted in less contact with parents and friends compared to remaining single, and these effects appeared to persist over time.


As Dr. Musick explains, “Our research shows that marriage is by no means unique in promoting well-being and that other forms of romantic relationships can provide many of the same benefits” (Musick, 2012).


The work of Bella DePaulo, PhD, a scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara seconds Musick’s findings. Presenting at the American Psychological Association’s 124th Annual Convention, DePaulo cited longitudinal research that shows single people value meaningful work more than married people, and another study that shows single people are also more connected to parents, siblings, friends, neighbors and coworkers. As De Paulo states, “When people marry, they become more insular” (DePaulo, 2016).


“The preoccupation with the perils of loneliness can obscure the profound benefits of solitude,” (DePaulo, 2016).


Studies that focus on single people reveal some telling findings, DePaulo reported. For example, research comparing people who stayed single with those who stayed married showed that single people have a heightened sense of self-determination and they are more likely to experience a sense of continued growth and development as a person.


Further, self-sufficiency, while adaptive for single people – and linked to lower levels of negative emotions – is not helpful for married people as the more self-sufficient they are, the more likely they are to experience negative emotions.


DePaulo also noted that given the view of the number of laws that benefit them – reportedly more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections, many of which are financial – we would expect to see that married people are much happier than they are. As she explains, “Considering all of the financial and cultural advantages people get just because they are married, it becomes even more striking that single people are doing as well as they are” (DePaulo, 2016).


Yet interestingly, today, more people are choosing to stay single. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, there were 124.6 million unmarried Americans over age 16 (meaning 50.2 percent of the nation’s adult population), compared to only 37.4 percent of the population in 1976.


Despite her convincing findings, however, DePaulo doesn’t conclude that any one way of living is better than anyone, but rather that, “We can find the places, the spaces and the people that fit who we really are and allow us to live our best lives” (DePaulo, 2016).


The choice about how to live and with who, while relevant to us all, is perhaps most important for homosexuals. Interestingly, marriage for them does seem uniquely linked to happiness.


After a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the number of cohabitating and married couple rose to 49 percent, compared to 38 percent before the ruling. And with this profound social change, along with a massive amount of data collected from the national, longitudinal study of LGBT older adults, known as “Aging with Pride: National Health, Aging, Sexuality/Gender Study,” researchers from the UW School of Social Work could now ask the question: What effect does marriage have on the happiness levels of homosexual couples?


Surveying more than 1,800 LGBT people, ages 50 and older, about one-fourth who were married, another fourth who were in a committed relationship, and half who were single researchers found that LGBT study participants who were married reported better physical and mental health, more social support and greater financial resources than those who were single (Goldsen, et. al. 2017).


Further, while in general, participants in a relationship, whether married or in a long-term partnership, showed better health outcomes than those who were single, those who were married fared even better, both socially and financially, than couples in unmarried, long-term partnerships. Single LGBT adults were also found to be more likely to have a disability; to report lower physical, psychological, social and environmental quality of life; and to have experienced the death of a partner, especially among men (Golden, et. al, 2017).


Goldsen’s finding are especially compelling given that many of the gay couples in her study married later in life due both to a delay in coming out of the closet as well as prohibitive laws. Further, as she points out, “More older people are living together and thinking outside the box. This was already happening within the LGBT community – couples were living together, but civil marriage wasn’t part of the story,” (Goldsen, 2017).


Marriage is an honored social institution, and does come with important social benefits, such as feelings of connection, closeness, and intimacy, yet even given so, it’s hard to conclude that it will boost happiness levels – except in the case of homosexual couples. It only seems fitting then, that the next question we should be asking ourselves is: What about children?


The answer to that question is well, complicated. The first issue, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Western University, Canada is which child we are talking about.


Examining the happiness levels of parents in the year before and after the birth of their first, second and third child, Mikko Myrskylä, professor of demography at LSE and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany found an interesting pattern. Parents’ happiness levels increase in the year before and after the birth of a first child, then quickly decreases and return to their ‘pre-child’ level of happiness. For second births, again happiness increases before and around the birth – yet it is roughly half of that as for first births. And for the third birth, the increase in parental happiness surrounding the birth is negligible (Myrskylä, 2014).


While it is possible, as Myrskylä notes, parental happiness increases before their first child is born suggests may reflect broader issues relating to childbearing such as couples forming partnerships and making plans for the future. Further, the decreases in happiness boosts with subsequent children may be related to less novelty and excitement about the experience, and increased strain on parenting resources.


The second issue is the age of the parents. According to research done by Mikko Myrskylä and Rachel Margolis, assistant professor from Western University’s Faculty of Social Science, older parents, between the ages of 35 – 49, have the strongest happiness gains around the time of birth and stay at a higher level of happiness after becoming parents, while those who become parents between the ages of 23 -34 have increasing happiness before a first birth, however one to two years after the birth, happiness decreases to baseline or below, and teens fare the worst with a predominantly declining pattern of happiness that does not increase above the baseline even during the year of birth (Myrskylä & Margolis, 2014).


Margolis explains: “The fact that among older and better-educated parents, well-being increases with childbearing, but the young and less-educated parents have flat or even downward happiness trajectories, may explain why postponing fertility has become so common” (Margolis, 2014).


The third issue, according to recent research from Baylor University, the University of Texas at Austin and Wake Forest University is where we live.


Examining comparative data from the United States, European countries, Australia, Russia and New Zealand, (a total of 22 industrialized countries) that had been gathered from the International Social Surveys and the European Social Surveys, and then controlling for factors such as number of unexpected births, average family size, and number of child-free people, gross domestic product, and fertility rate, the research team found that the U.S. had the largest “happiness gap” among parents compared to nonparents.


Part of the reason for this, according to co-researcher Matthew Andersson, Ph.D., and assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, is that in the United States, compared to other countries, there is no standard paid leave available to mothers or parents – or any standard vacation or sick leave to support raising a dependent child. In contrast, in countries in which such policies are mandated by the government or industry, a smaller gap exists between parents and non-parents (Andersson, 2016).


Further, what had an even greater effect on parents’ happiness levels than giving them money in child allowances or monthly payments was giving them the tools – such as flexible work time – to combine employment with parenting (Andersson, 2016).


The fourth issue is how parenting tasks are divided. Using time diary data from more than 12,000 parents that linked to their feelings in the 2010, 2012, and 2013 American Time Use Survey a team of researchers from Cornell University, the University of Minnesota, and Minnesota Population Center examined the types of parenting activities mothers and fathers performed and individual well-being during the activities.


Confirming what mothers have reported anecdotally, the researchers found that not only do parenting activities – and the environment surrounding the activity – between mothers and fathers differ, mothers report significantly higher levels of stress and greater fatigue than fathers (Musick, et. al, 2016). As Meier explains, “When mothers are with their kids, they are more often by themselves. When fathers are with their kids, they are more likely to have other adults around, offering some back-up. This helps us understand why fathers are less stressed when with kids” (Meier, 2016).


Sleep also had an effect on parents’ differing levels of happiness, as mothers were more likely than fathers to be called on by kids around the clock, and fathers’ sleep and down-time were less likely than mothers’ to be interrupted by kids (Musick, et, al., 2016).


Given studies like this it’s hard to make the case that having children will raise happiness levels. Yet perhaps the most prevailing – albeit shocking – evidence comes from the work of Seth Davidowitz, the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. Davidowitz reports, “After making their decision – either to reproduce (or adopt) or not – people sometimes confess to Google that they rue their choice. This may come as something of a shock post-decision… Adults with children are 3.6 times more likely to tell Google that they regret their decision than are adults without children” (Davidowitz, 2017).


Getting married and having children are not assured routes to happiness. Both can give us short boosts in happiness levels, but their procurement of lasting happiness seems to be much more related to our age at the time of marriage or child bearing, the social support available to us, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the amount of work we put into them.

Photo by Kamaljith

Photo by Kamaljith