Does Marriage Make You Happier in the Long Term?

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Does Marriage Make You Happier?

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Marriage has been woven into the fabric of society throughout history. The idea has been: Find your “soulmate,” marry that individual, and you will be infinitely happy. Numerous studies in the 20th and early 21st centuries have glorified and portrayed marriage as benevolent and beneficial to all, and have stigmatized what it means to be single. Accordingly, the United States government has promulgated policies such as tax rebates and health benefits to encourage marriage.

However, newer studies are proving that married people are not happier and healthier as was previously believed.

An award-winning study on more than 24,000 German adults found that people who got married tended to be a bit happier in the year of the wedding, but eventually their happiness returned to where it was prior. The authors call this phenomenon the "honeymoon" period. They state that “on average, people adapt quickly and completely to marriage”.

Another study, based on data from a national, 17-year, 5-wave panel sample, finds declines in happiness levels at all marital durations with no support for an upturn in marital happiness in later years. It is striking to see that this finding has a biological basis in the brain chemical phenylethylamine (or PEA), which associates with feelings of well-being. The researchers of the latter study argue that the decline in happiness (and the frequency of sexual activity) may occur either because neurons become habituated to the effects of PEA or because of a decline in the levels of PEA over time.

Yet another study of data from the 1984-2004 German Socio-Economic Panel supports the conclusions of the previous studies. In this study, the authors also find no evidence that children affect life satisfaction. The authors state that the typical explanation for the benefits of marriage is the “social support” that people derive from their partner. There is a positive effect of companionship, emotional support, and sustained sexual intimacy . However, these benefits dwindle after time, people adapt to their presence, and perhaps most importantly, they cut ties with some of their other friends .

Respect parenting differences. Support your spouse's basic approach to raising kids - unless it's way out of line. Criticizing or arguing with your partner will do more harm to your marriage and your child's sense of security than if you accept standards that are different from your own.

Even other studies that show a slight, lasting happiness advantage conferred by marriage admit that this uptick is partly due to the selection effect whereby happier people tend to marry rather than marriage bringing happiness to the ones who were less happy to begin with.

It is therefore possible that in the past, marriage led to increased levels of happiness and better health. But modern, sophisticated research is proving contrary. Society must catch up and begin to dissolve the generations’ long misconception of marriage as the societal ideal. Single people can and do live happy lives. If you are looking to live a fulfilling and happy life, thinking long term shows that marriage should not be the most important factor.

This article was written with Lindsay Workman, UC Berkeley.