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Is Marriage Necessary for Happiness?

First study of its kind shows surprising results.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash
Many factors besides marital status predict how happy our lives are.
Source: Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

For decades now, studies have suggested that marriage has advantages for boosting our happiness and longevity. A case in point was a 17-nation study published in a 1998 edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family that found being married was 3.4 times more closely linked to happiness than cohabitation. But a new first of its kind study paints a surprisingly different picture.

Researchers from Michigan State University sought to quantify the happiness of married, formerly married, and single people at the end of their lives to find out just how much love and marriage played into overall well-being. The study—published in the Journal of Positive Psychology—examined the relationship histories of 7,532 people divided into three groups (ages 18 to 60) to determine who reported being happiest at the end of their lives.

  • Group 1: 79 percent of the participants were consistently married, spending most of their lives in one marriage.
  • Group 2: 8 percent were consistently single or spent most of their lives unmarried.
  • Group 3: 13 percent had a mixed history of moving in and out of relationships, divorce, remarrying, or becoming widowed.

The researchers asked questions such as, “Do people need to be in a relationship to be happy?” and “Does living single your whole life translate to unhappiness?” Or “What about if you were married at some point but it didn’t work out?” Once becoming an older adult, the participants were asked to rate their overall happiness, and the researchers compared their responses to the group they were in.

The results showed no difference in the happiness among those who had mixed relationship histories and those who remained a lifelong single. The authors of the study suggest that their findings call into question Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous quote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” And those who “loved and lost” are just as happy at the end of their lives as those who “Never loved at all.”

The authors explained their findings by pointing out that relationship status doesn’t show the whole story of whether or not someone is happy. People can live their entire lives in unhappy marriages. Singles can enjoy many other aspects of life besides marriage such as friendships, hobbies, and career. And if someone isn’t happy at the outset, getting married isn’t a panacea that will automatically create a happy person.

The authors concluded that true happiness is more about mindset than marriage: “If you can find happiness and fulfillment as a single person, you’ll likely hold onto that happiness whether there’s a ring on your finger or not.”

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Mariah F. Purol, M.F. et al. (2020). Loved and lost or never loved at all? Lifelong marital histories and their links with subjective well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1791946

Stack, S., & J. Ross Eshleman, R. (1998). Marital status and happiness: A 17-nation study. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60 (2), 527-536. DOI: 10.2307/353867