I am conventionally monogamous and married, and have been in a stable and affectionate relationship for almost 40 years. So I suppose I should be smug about this report that married people are the happiest people.
“We have found in Canadian, British and American data, when you include demographic variables like ‘married,’ marriage typically turns out to have a significant positive effect,” he told me over the phone. Among other benefits, “marriage is good for people because it is a vehicle and a place where good friends are made and cherished.”
But does marriage really make you happier in the long run? Or are happier people simply more likely to get married in the first place? Prof. Helliwell thinks he’s found the answer. In a new research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, he and colleague Shawn Grover conclude not only that marriage does make people happier, but that being married to your best friend makes you extra happy. The same goes for people who live together. “Those who are best friends with their partners have the largest well-being benefits from marriage and cohabitation, even when controlling for premarital well-being levels,” they write.
Except…I don’t think marriage has anything to do with it. The cited study reports a correlation, but I don’t think they’ve teased apart the symptom, marriage, from the cause for happiness, which is almost certainly an issue of having deep friendships. The study used a Gallup World Poll to look at the effect of “marriage” across many cultures (and found a positive effect in most of them), but it seems to me that “marriage” can describe a lot of very different kinds of relationships, and that there are relationships that provide the same benefits as “marriage” without being called that. But there’s something that helps people live happier lives, and they point out the strong effect of deep friendship.
Subjective well-being research has often found that marriage is positively correlated with well-being. Some have argued that this correlation may be result of happier people being more likely to marry. Others have presented evidence suggesting that the well-being benefits of marriage are short-lasting. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, we control individual pre-marital well-being levels and find that the married are still more satisfied, suggesting a causal effect, even after full allowance is made for selection effects. Using new data from the United Kingdom’s Annual Population Survey, we find that the married have a less deep U-shape in life satisfaction across age groups than do the unmarried, indicating that marriage may help ease the causes of the mid-life dip in life satisfaction and that the benefits of marriage are unlikely to be short-lived. We explore friendship as a mechanism which could help explain a causal relationship between marriage and life satisfaction, and find that well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend. Finally, we use the Gallup World Poll to show that although the overall well-being effects of marriage appear to vary across cultural contexts, marriage eases the middle-age dip in life evaluations for all regions except Sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite having a happy marriage myself, I’m reluctant to endorse marriage for everyone: I’ve known some miserable marriages. My grandparents, I think, would have had far happier lives if they were acculturated to accept the reasonableness of divorce — they were the two unhappiest people I’ve ever known, and they made each other miserable. We also live in a bizarre culture in which media both takes marriage for granted and paints it as an antagonistic relationship. Try watching I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners, those classics of American television, and you’ll see marriage portrayed as an exercise in sado-masochism (there are exceptions: the Dick Van Dyke Show actually did seem to show a happy and mutually supportive relationship).
Or if you want to see a real abomination, take a look at any conservative Christian guide to marriage. It’s all about rules and roles, rather than two equals who actually like each other and lift each other up.
I guess I wouldn’t advise anyone to get married. I’d say you should form close friendships with people, and if they lead to marriage, then that’s lovely. I’d also say that if you’re trying to impose laws that forbid the natural expression of intimacy and refuse to recognize the importance of it all, then you’re actively working to make people unhappy and are not supporting justice.