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American Marriages: Happiness and Health Decline Over Time

We know about the trajectories of happiness for German and Dutch people who get married and stay married. Longitudinal research (in which the same people are followed for years — in the German study, more than 20 years) has shown that when people marry, those who will stay married enjoy a “honeymoon effect.”

They become a bit happier around the time of the marriage, but then that happiness dissipates over time. On the average, the Germans who married and stayed married returned to the same level of happiness they experienced when they were single, and that happened within a few years. The increase in happiness lasted longer for the Dutch.

In my writings on marital status and happiness (in Singled Out and elsewhere), I’ve pointed out that those happiness studies don’t really tell us how happiness will change when you marry, because the honeymoon effect occurs only for those who stay married. Those who marry and then divorce actually become a bit less happy as their wedding day approaches and that decline continues until the year before the divorce becomes final.

Individual people approaching marriage do not know which group they will end up in – the one that stays married or the one that gets divorced. If we want to know the implications for happiness (or anything else) of getting married, we need to look at the results for everyone who marries, and not just those who stay married.

-3 Comments to
American Marriages: Happiness and Health Decline Over Time

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  1. I’ve always known that the “marriage makes you happier” studies were flawed. If that were so, why were all these happy people contributing to the divorce rate in this country? There are just too many nuances that were being skipped over. Thanks so much for your efforts at spreading the truth, Bella.

  2. We are talking subjective well being (balance of positive/negative affect, and sat. in life)?

  3. So, if the findings are taken literally and with an open mind, the data suggest two paths to enhanced health and happiness over the long-term:

    1) a series of relationships each lasting approximately 3 years

    2) one long-term relationship that happens to work out and lasts indefinitely

  4. To dm_todd: The happiness measure was just a 7 point scale, from very unhappy to very happy. Depression was measured by the standard Depression Scale, CES-D. Self-esteem was measured by three items that look to me to be taken from the Rosenberg self-esteem scale, though they don’t say that explicitly.

  5. To David: In other studies, authors have looked separately at people who divorce. They find that happiness levels, on the average, dip below those experienced by people who stay single for many years; around the time of the divorce, those people are markedly less happy than those who stay single.

    As for the high-quality long-term relationship: Over time, happiness dissipates even for them, so that they end up no happier than when they were single.

    So, one reading is that staying single is your best bet! You don’t run the risk of those big dips in happiness if you divorce, and eventually, even the best-quality, longest-lasting couples end up no happier than they were when they were single.

    A really important qualifier to all of this: the particular individual in question. As someone who is single at heart, marriage would be bad for my individual happiness, no matter what the average statistics say. Similarly, I think there are some people who just do better as a couple, and would not be happy single, again no matter what the stats say that average across people.

  6. The fact that happiness isn’t above what it was seven or some odd years into the marriage than it was when the partners were unmarried doesn’t devalue the institution.

  7. I find this very common in a secular group of people. Try having a survey in a bible-believing church where people who are in their 80s are still married and hold hands and you might find interesting facts that are different from what they have gathered. It offers such tremendous peace of mind when you do not have to worry about your spouse cheating on you because he has put God first into your marriage and believes that your commitment to each other is sacred. It doesn’t mean the marriage doesn’t encounter other challenges that day-to-day life brings, but it certainly is more rewarding and fulfilling to have someone with you whom you know will spend the rest of his life loving you as God calls him.Also, in 1996 the most credible sexual study undertaken to date that was made available to the public by the University of Chicago have these statements:- People who reported being more physically pleased (by sex) and emotionally satisfied were married couples.- Lowest rates of satisfaction were among men and women who were neither married nor living with someone – the very group thought to be having the hottest sex.- Physical and emotional satisfaction started to decline when people had more than one sexual partner.


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