David Brooks + Sandra Bullock = Matrimania

When you read, “being married is associated with…,” beware!

Posted Mar 30, 2010

In his column today, David Brooks asks whether winning an Academy Award is worth it, if it comes with a cheating husband, as it did for Sandra Bullock. I don't care about that question, but I do want to underscore some Brooksian fallacies. They are not his alone, but he is giving them wings by printing them in his New York Times op-ed column.

In making his case, Brooks says this: "According to another [study], being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year." He gives no reference to the study so it is hard to check out the claim the way I prefer - by reading the original research report. Still, just that one sentence is telling. What it tells us is to beware. If some study really did show that "being married" is equivalent to one hundred grand, then if you get married, will you become the equivalent of $100K happier?

The answer is no. Studies that compare the currently married to everyone else (which is the vast majority of marital status studies) can tell us nothing about the implications of getting married for happiness, health, or anything else. That's because the currently married are the people who are left after setting aside the 40-some percent of people who got married, hated it, and got divorced. It is like saying that the new drug Shamster is very effective, based on a study in which the experiences of nearly half the people who took the drug were discounted, because it most certainly did not work for them. Or, as one of my Living Single readers pointed out, it is like encouraging others to get into the start-up business based on the success of Google and Netflix, hoping that it won't occur to them to consider all of the start-ups that fail.

Keep this general rule in mind and you can debunk many claims about the implications of getting married from now into the future: Anyone who compares those who are currently married with others is probably cheating. Such a comparison tells you nothing about the implications of getting married.

The best studies follow people over time as they stay single or get married or get divorced or become widowed or get remarried. That research shows that even the people who get married and stay married do not enjoy any lasting increase in happiness. Further, those who marry and then divorce do not even enjoy a brief honeymoon effect around the time of the wedding; instead, their happiness continues to decline over the course of the marriage, until about a year before the divorce becomes official.

Now consider this claim from Brooks:

"Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn't matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn't matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled."

First, notice how this proclamation seems to assume that everyone is married and the only relevant variable is whether your marriage is a happy one or not. Odd, when the number of unmarried Americans is approaching 50%.

Second, this is another cheater technique. If it turns out that marriage really is not that magic entrée to everlasting bliss, then be even more selective - just pick out the happy marriages. Remember, all of the people who married and then divorced have already been set aside. The general principle here is to just keep finding more and more selective subsets of all of the people who got married until you finally find the ones who fit your hypothesis. (But if you are comparing the happily married to other groups, such as singles, then keep cheating - don't compare the happily married to the happily single - just compare the happily married to all singles.)

Brooks also lists what he claims to be (again, without any references) the daily activities most associated with happiness. What he does not mention are the social companions most associated with feeling happy. So if, as Brooks seems to imply, married partners are the one-hundred thousand dollar tickets to happiness, then surely people are happiest when they are with their spouse. Wrong! When you ask people to report on various positive and negative emotions they are feeling over the course of a day, and also ask them whom they are with, time spent with friends turns out to be the most emotionally rewarding. We are most likely to experience positive feelings, and least likely to experience negative ones, when we are with our friends than when we are with a spouse or partner, a child, a co-worker, a relative, or anyone else.