Claims that married people are happier than single people are ubiquitous, appearing in the popular media as well as scholarly publications. I want to explain why those claims are misleading and very often misunderstood.
What if a drug company made the same claims? Suppose a drug company tested a new drug that was supposed to improve people’s happiness. The drug company lets people decide for themselves whether they want to take the drug. Of those who do, 42% hate the drug so much that they refuse to keep taking it. Other people who started taking the drug stop taking it because they can’t access it anymore (maybe their pharmacy ran out).
The people in the study then rate how happy they are, on a scale ranging from 1 to 4, with 4 being the happiest. This is what the researchers find:
- 3.3 from those currently taking the drug
- 3.2 from those who never took the drug
- 2.9 from those who took the drug but found it intolerable (42%)
- 2.9 from those who took the drug, but lost access to it
The drug company decides to set aside the people who are no longer on the drug. That seems fair to them. After all, they want to show that people taking the drug are doing better than people not taking the drug.
So they submit their findings to prestigious medical journals, claiming that people who are taking their drug are happier than people who are not taking their drug. In the article they submit, they report the results for the two groups they consider relevant:
- 3.3 from those currently taking the drug
- 3.2 from those who never took the drug
The main point of their article is that their new drug works. People taking the drug are happier than people not taking the drug.
The drug company also wants to advertise on TV, in magazines, online, and everywhere else. The point of their ads would be: Want to be happier? Take our new drug!
No medical journal would publish that claim and the advertisements would be considered misleading.
What’s wrong with the claim that people taking the drug are doing better than people not taking the drug, and therefore the drug works? Why can’t the drug company say that if you want to be happier, take the drug?
- The people in the drug trial were not randomly assigned to take the drug or not take it; they decided for themselves. That means that the two groups of people might differ in all sorts of ways, and it could be those ways, rather than taking the drug, that accounts for the drug group’s greater happiness. For example, maybe the people who opted to take the drug were more likely to be employed or to be advantaged in other ways and that’s why they were happier – not because they were taking the drug. The researchers only measured happiness at one point in time. Maybe the people who opted to take the drug were already happier even before they took the drug. Again, that could mean that taking the drug had nothing to do with their happiness.
- It is misleading to set aside the 42% of the people who took the drug, found it intolerable, and refused to keep taking it. That’s a lot of people – almost half! Aren’t their experiences relevant to the claim that the drug works? Aren’t the experiences of the people who started taking the drug and then, through no fault of their own, could not continue taking it, also relevant? Can you really say that the drug works when the people in those two groups actually do worse than the people who never took the drug?
Suppose you saw an advertisement saying that the people taking the drug are happier than people not taking the drug, and decided to take the drug yourself. Maybe the drug doesn’t make you any happier. How would you feel if you found out later that there were big groups of people who had also taken the drug and were less happy than the people who never did take the drug? How would you feel then about the drug company’s claim that people taking the drug are happier than people not taking the drug?
Someone deciding whether to take the drug has no way of knowing whether they will find it intolerable or end up losing access to the drug. They deserve to know that those two possibilities exist, and that they could end up less happy than if they opted not to take the drug at all.
How Is This Relevant to the Happiness of Married and Single People?
As you probably already figured out, the four groups are comparable to four marital status groups:
- 3.3 from those currently taking the drug (currently married)
- 3.2 from those who never took the drug (never married singles)
- 2.9 from those who took the drug but found it intolerable (42% of those who took the drug -- the people who divorced)
- 2.9 from those who took the drug but lost access to it (those who are widowed)
I used those numbers because they are the actual results of a study that was widely cited when I first started studying single people decades ago. The authors, to their credit, were appropriately cautious about interpreting their findings. They did not make the claim that the married people were happier because they got married.
Hundreds of studies like this have been published, and they are often summarized with statements such as, “Married people are happier than single people.” The problems are the same as the ones I described for the drug study. Married and single people differ in all sorts of ways. For example, in the U.S., married people are systematically advantaged by hundreds of laws that favor them. Single people, in contrast, are stereotyped, stigmatized, and marginalized. They are targets of discrimination, some of it quite serious. Maybe it is that systematic inequality that counts for any happiness differences, and not that married people “have someone” and single people do not. In fact, single people, on average, have robust social lives and often have deep attachments to other people.
If you were deciding whether to get married based on the results of this study, would you just look at the first two groups and say, “OK, married people are happier than single people, so I guess I’ll get married”? But you don’t know which group you will end up in, so the more appropriate comparison is: Everyone who ever married vs. those who never married. For everyone who ever married, the average of the ratings 3.3, 2.9, and 2.9 is just 3.0. For people who never married, their happiness rating is 3.2. The single people, then, are happier, on the average, than the people who got married.
The best study, methodologically, would randomly assign people to get married, stay single, get married and divorce, or get married and become widowed. Of course, that kind of study would be impossible to conduct—and ethically indefensible. A good alternative, better than comparing people at just one point in time (cross-sectional research) is longitudinal research, which follows the same people over years of their lives. As of 2012, there were already 18 studies showing that people who got married did not become lastingly happier than they were when they were single. At best, they experienced a brief increase in happiness around the time of the wedding, which did not last. Longitudinal studies of health, especially the most recent and most methodologically sophisticated ones, also defy the claim that getting married makes people healthier.
If you get married, will you become happier and healthier? Longitudinal research suggests that, on average, the answer is no.
Why It Matters That Claims About the Happiness of Married People Are Often Repeated
The claim that married people are happier than single people is widely misunderstood. Single people sometimes think it means that if they get married, they will become happier, and married people who are happy sometimes think they are happy because they are married.
That claim should be replaced by a different one: People who marry, on average, do not become lastingly happier than they were when they were single.
The other, more popular claim – that married people are happier than single people – encourages people to ignore all the people who get married and then get divorced or become widowed and end up less happy than they were when they were single.
It also encourages grudging narratives about happy single people: Sure, single people say they are happy, but they are just reconciling themselves to the fact that they wanted to marry but that didn’t happen. Sure, they have their independence, but they probably have attachment issues.
For decades, I have been studying people who are flourishing. I call them single at heart. They are single for positive reasons — because they value all that single life has to offer. They are not just reconciling themselves to a life they never wanted. For people who are single at heart, single life is their best life – their most authentic, meaningful, fulfilling, and psychologically rich life.
The single at heart have a place in the scholarly literature. At Google Scholar, the search term “single at heart” turns up 41 citations. As the concept becomes more widely known, more will follow. In my own research, more than 19,000 people from more than 100 countries have answered my Single at Heart survey, producing some intriguing findings I’ve discussed here previously.
Research and writings on single people have too often focused on their presumed deficits – claiming that they are not as happy or healthy as married people, or they are lonelier, or they are worse off in some other way. A truly inclusive perspective on singlehood needs to acknowledge people who flourish when single. It needs to acknowledge them in a way that is not grudging, just as happily married people are so often acknowledged.