Are Married People Happier? Think Again
Hidden mechanisms should be considered in discussing the benefits of marriage.
Posted Jan 20, 2019
As we approach Valentine’s Day and Singles Awareness Day, we should discuss the question of whether having a spouse is really as beneficial as it is considered to be. Marriage and family are still sanctified in our society, and only recently a discussion has started about whether we should use the "F" (family) word more cautiously. In March 2017, Google experienced a backlash from its own employees after an internal presentation misused the word family, leaving out various groups, including single parents, childless singles, and non-traditional families.
The uproar caused Google vice president Pavni Diwanji to change the way they use the word. Diwanji wrote in response: "I realize what we said might have caused concerns in the way we talked about families . . . we needed to be more conscientious about the fact that there is a diverse makeup of parents and families." Although Google responded appropriately that time, such responses are still the exception, and society is still obsessed with marriage and the ostensible benefits it carries. These apparent benefits keep pushing many to the wedlock, while others feel they "miss out" when they do not marry.
Indeed, following a major review of studies related to marital status and physical and mental health, some researchers concluded that married life is correlated with many economic, physical, and social benefits. They argue that the question is not whether marriage can be associated with improved quality of life, but how it does so and at what stage.
Their analysis, however, is missing an important factor that might change the conclusions derived from these previous studies. I analyze this in length, in my book, Happy Singlehood. They do not address the issue of whether self-selection could be a factor affecting the relationship between marriage and quality of life. In other words, it could be that happy and healthy individuals with more earning power are more likely to marry, painting a different picture of the effects of marriage. There is evidence to suggest that people select into marriage based on personal income, parents’ income, education, and whether or not are they are depressed. As such, research on the benefits of married life would not be complete without a discussion on the selection mechanisms into marriage.
Already in 1987, two American researchers, Nakosteen and Zimmer, studied whether marriage affects the earnings of young men. They state that they "find no evidence to support that proposition." Based on a sample of 576 young men extracted from the 1977 wave of the Michigan Panel Survey of Income Dynamics, the authors show that marriage is not a direct contributor to earnings. Rather, the authors suggest that married men are selected into marriage by coming from a stronger economic background, and that they are more attached to their jobs.
Another study addressing the selection-causation question is a 17-year longitudinal study conducted in Germany. Using data from the German Socio-Economic Panel, the researchers investigated the marriage patterns of individuals in relation to their levels of happiness. The results suggest that happier singles are indeed more likely to get married, and that the benefits of marriage are more pronounced among happier individuals. Moreover, other psychological and medical studies suggest genetic selection into divorce and marriage.
Some striking conclusions arise from a study showing a self-selection mechanism not only in getting married, but also in being divorced. Based on a 4.5-year longitudinal data of approximately 10,000 Dutch persons, aged 15–74, the authors show that married persons who reported four or more subjective health complaints or two or more chronic conditions were 1.5 and two times, respectively, more likely to become divorced than persons without these health problems. I found the same in the research I conducted for my book, Happy Singlehood. This means that less healthy people are more likely to be abandoned by their spouse. No wonder that the marriage path seems so rosy: If you are not part of the "happily ever after" story, you will be kicked out of it!
This means that we should be very careful in buying into the argument that marriage makes people happier. Even if there is such a causation effect, and even if selection mechanisms are only part of the factors affecting the positive outcomes observed among married couples, we still need to suspect other hidden variables. Such variables relate to the social exclusion and stigma experienced by singles, divorced, and widowed people that probably associate with numerous negative outcomes.
The problem is that we do not have enough data on these discriminatory practices. Moreover, we still do not have enough data on the effect of these practices on positive mediators and outcomes such as hiring singles to work, promoting them, and inviting unmarried people to certain social networking events. While these factors are thoroughly investigated in many other contexts (racism, chauvinism, homophobia) and proved to be detrimental to the success of these populations, they are still mostly unexplored when we discuss the social standing of the single population, a population that is growing every day and deserves our immediate attention.
As we continue in the ongoing and important conversation about the myriad possibilities of having a family, including having a chosen family with friends and relatives, or simply living on our own or as part of a wider community, may it be a conversation that is not simply loaded with beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, what way of living is more beneficial and what way is less so.
Note: This post has a second part that answers some of the questions I have received following the current one.