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New Ways to Make Married People Seem Better Than They Are

Huffington Post blogger perpetuates myth

The Huffington Post is spreading the myth that getting married makes you happier. They are featuring a post on that topic on their home page. As soon as I discovered it, I scrutinized the article referenced by the blogger and found the same old slippery science I've seen so many times before. I immediately wrote the post below to set the record straight but I don't know when it will actually appear there.

Regular readers of Living Single will find most of the arguments familiar. You will probably appreciate the new twist on making married people look better. Also new and amusing is the attempt by the authors of the original journal article to dismiss the findings about the singles who are especially happy.

Here's what I wrote.

No, Getting Married Will NOT Make You Happier

Featured on the home page of the Huffington Post on May 23, 2011 was Christine Carter's post, "Does marriage make us happier?" Her answer is yes. She is wrong. Getting married does NOT make us happier. She refers to a published study to make her case. I'll explain why that study does NOT show that getting married makes you happier.

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AN ANALOGY

First, let's set aside the matrimania and all of the myths about single people and consider a hypothetical example that has nothing to do with marital status. Suppose a happiness coach offers you an opportunity to become a lastingly happier person. He (or she) says that you can sign up for workshops that are ongoing. He's been running the workshops for a while, and he shows you data indicating that people who are taking the workshops are happier than people who are not taking the workshops. You think that sounds good, so you plunk down your money and sign up.

Now suppose you find out later that there was something the coach never told you - lots of people who signed up for the workshops ended up not liking them at all. In fact, they disliked the workshops so much that they refused to continue, even though they had already paid their money. Close to half of all the people who ever signed up for the workshops are in this group of people who disliked them and dropped out.

But when the coach tried to entice you to take the workshop, he did not include the data from the dissatisfied customers. So when he said that people taking the workshops were happier than people not taking them, he was hoping you wouldn't realize that he was only showing you the happiness data from people who LIKED the workshops and found them helpful enough to continue with them. But you have no idea whether you will like the workshops, or whether you will be among the nearly 50% who can't stand them and will refuse to continue, even though it means giving up all you've invested in them already.

THE STUDY CARTER IS DESCRIBING

The study Christine Carter referenced to make her case (full reference is at the end of this post) is based on an extraordinary dataset, in which thousands of Germans (age 16 and older) were asked once a year to answer the question, "How satisfied are you with your life?" Responses ranged from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied). The authors looked at 17 years of data. With such a dataset, it is possible to plot lifelines of happiness and how they change or stay the same as people stay single or get married or get divorced or become widowed or get remarried.

In the first set of analyses, the authors compare those who are married to those who are single and declare the marrieds the winners of the happiness sweepstakes. Does that mean that if you get married you will become happier? Of course not. People who got married, hated it, and got divorced are not included in this comparison. (In some studies, divorced people are included with singles, and the authors tout the "benefits" of marriage. But the divorced people got married, too, and by their own reports of their happiness, they did not benefit.)

If you can access the journal article (referenced below), let's take a look at the graphs. Figure 1 compares those who are married with those who stayed single. Remember, the married include only the currently married, not everyone who ever married, so already it is a select group. The graph shows a difference favoring the currently marrieds but by the time the participants reach their mid-50s, there is little difference, and by age 60, it appears that those who stayed single are, if anything, very slightly happier than the select group of married people.

So how do the authors account for that? On the basis of no data whatsoever, they offer this speculation: "attrition is likely to be more of a problem for unhappy singles than unhappy spouses, who are members of an interviewed household." Basically, they are saying that despite what their data are telling them, they are not about to believe that people who stay single can be just as happier, or even a bit happier, than the currently married. Instead, they propose that the unhappy singles - unlike the unhappy marrieds - stopped participating in the study, maybe because they were not part of a participating household. But why wouldn't the happy singles, also living without someone to nudge them to stay in the study, stop participating, too?

Now look, if you can, at Figure 2. It shows the happiness of people who got married, starting from before they got married until 10 years after their wedding day. The highest level of happiness is around the year of the wedding - the honeymoon effect. But during those last few years, when their marriage has been going on for close to a decade, their happiness level is LOWER than it was for any of the 10 years before they married. (It is not clear whether the differences are statistically significant.)

So if you get married, will you get happier? Not if you get married and then divorce. If you get married and stay married, you will get a bit happier around the time of your wedding, but then your happiness will decrease until it is lower than it was before you married.

That's not the message you got from the Carter post.

A NEW CHEATER TECHNIQUE TO MAKE MARRIED PEOPLE LOOK BETTER THAN THEY ARE

The biggest problem with research supposedly showing that getting married makes you happier is that most of it is like this study - only those who are currently married, or who got married and stayed married, are compared to single people. The ones who got married and got divorced are set aside or included with the single people. You can't say that getting married makes you happier if you only count the people who got married and stayed that way.

In this study, though, there was another gem hidden in an appendix:

"People who indicate that they are married but live apart are not considered to be married when they are mentioned as being divorced the following year."

Translation: Not only did the researchers exclude from the got-married group all those who got married and then got divorced, they also excluded those who were headed for divorce but were still technically married. Can't let the happiness of the currently-married group get pulled down by those who are married and not happy.

BOTTOM LINE

Christine Carter made this sweeping statement:

"mountains of research show that being married has pretty large positive effects on husbands and wives...married people tend to be happier, more satisfied with their lives and less depressed. They tend to be healthier, too."

When studies seem to show that married people are better off, that's not because getting married transforms miserable, sickly single people into blissfully happy and healthy couples. It is because the methodology is a set-up. All of the people who got married, hated it, and got divorced are not counted in the comparisons. So the real conclusion is that in some studies, people who get married are better off than people who stay single, as long as you do not count all the people who got married and got miserable and got unmarried.

Oh, and if you get married and stay married, you will feel a little happier than you did before around the time of the wedding. Years later, though, you will be no happier than you were before you married, and probably a bit less so.

That's the good news. If you get married and get divorced, you won't even get that honeymoon effect. On the average, people headed for divorce are already becoming LESS happy (rather than happier) as their wedding day approaches. Then their happiness continues to head downward, as does that of the people who stay married.

One last point: The average happiness of the single people for every year on every graph is always solidly on the happy end of the scale. Yes, there are individual single people who are unhappy, but they are the exceptions, not the norm.

I've tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to get this down to blog-length. I presented my arguments and graphs of the data from the same study, in much more detail in Chapter 2 of Singled Out. There, I also show that claims about married people being healthier and living longer are equally bogus.

Reference:

Stutzer, Alois, & Frey, Bruno S. (2006). Does marriage make people happy, or do happy people get married? The Journal of Socio-Economics, 35, 326-347.

 

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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