Marriage has been woven into the fabric of society throughout much of history. The idea has been: Find your “soulmate,” marry that individual, and you will be infinitely happy. Numerous studies in the 20th and early 21st centuries have glorified and portrayed marriage as benevolent and beneficial to all, and have stigmatized what it means to be single. Accordingly, the United States government has promulgated policies such as tax rebates and health benefits to encourage marriage.
However, newer studies are proving that married people are not happier and healthier as was previously believed.
An award-winning study of more than 24,000 German adults found that people who got married tended to be a bit happier in the year of the wedding, but eventually their happiness returned to where it was prior. The authors call this phenomenon the "honeymoon" period, and state that “on average, people adapt quickly and completely to marriage."
Another study, based on data from a national, 17-year, 5-wave panel sample, finds declines in happiness levels at all marital durations with no support for an upturn in marital happiness in later years. It is striking to see that this finding has a biological basis in the brain chemical phenylethylamine (or PEA), which is associated with feelings of well-being. The researchers of the latter study argue that the decline in happiness (and frequency of sexual activity) may occur either because neurons become habituated to the effects of PEA or because of a decline in the levels of PEA over time.
Yet another study, using data from the 1984-2004 German Socio-Economic Panel, supports the conclusions of the previous research. In this study, the authors also find no evidence that children affect life satisfaction. The authors state that the typical explanation for the benefits of marriage is the “social support” that people derive from their partner. There is a positive effect of companionship, emotional support, and sustained sexual intimacy. However, these benefits dwindle over time, people adapt to their presence, and perhaps most important, they cut ties with some of their other friends.
Even other studies that show a slight, lasting happiness advantage conferred by marriage admit that this uptick could be partly due to the selection effect—whereby happier people tend to marry, not that marriage brings happiness to individuals who were less happy to begin with.
It is therefore possible that in the past, marriage led to increased levels of happiness and better health. But modern, sophisticated research is proving contrary. Society must catch up and begin to dissolve the generations-long misconception of marriage as a societal ideal. Single people can and do live happy lives. And if you are seeking to live a fulfilling and happy life, thinking long term shows that marriage should probably not be the most important criterion.
This post was written with Lindsay Workman, UC Berkeley.
Facebook image: tommaso79/Shutterstock