Does being married make you a happier person? According to a report from Michigan State University released Thursday, the answer appears to be yes.
The study, which will be published in the Journal of Research in Personality, shows that while married people are not necessarily happier than they were when they were single, marriage “appears to protect against normal declines in happiness during adulthood” that happen over time. This finding begs another, perhaps more disturbing, question: Is a person destined for long-term unhappiness if he or she grows old alone?
Of course, this isn’t the first study we’ve seen about marriage and happiness -- as early as 1938 (and perhaps even before that), researchers have tried to determine what factors make a happy marriage and whether or not married people were happier than those who made other lifestyle choices. More recently, in January 2012, research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family revealed that cohabiting couples could be just as happy as their married counterparts, which was significant because previous studies largely focused on the married-versus-single dichotomy.
To better understand how MSU’s study fits into the breadth of previous research about marriage and happiness, HuffPost Weddings spoke to Stevie C.Y. Yap, a researcher in MSU’s Department of Psychology, who was one of the report's lead authors. Below, he discusses his team's findings and methodology and explains what makes his results unique.
What do you mean when you say that married people are "happier"?
Our data suggests that married people are happier than they would have been if they didn’t get married. Marriage protects against age-related declines in happiness.
In the study, "happiness" meant whatever the person who filled out the survey wanted it to mean. We qualified happiness in terms of individual satisfaction -- the overall satisfaction one has with one’s own life. We asked how satisfied people felt with their lives as a whole. Some people value family, some people value career and everything in between; we allowed people to make that judgment of happiness for themselves.
How did you determine that married people were happier than they would have been had they not gotten married?
We used a control group matching technique: We selected a sample of people who were similar to the married people in terms of their age, education, gender and income but were unmarried -- they stayed single throughout [their participation in the survey] -- and we used them as a control group for comparison. It would be incorrect to say that all single people decline in happiness levels over time, but the control group in our study did show a decline.
Is there a "prime time" for happiness in a marriage?
Yes, there is a spike right at the first year of marriage. When you look at the average life satisfaction -- if you graph out the 10 years before marriage and 10 years after -- you do see a spike right in the first year of marriage. But that boost gradually tapers off. In the years following marriage, [people’s happiness levels are] not statistically different than their baselines before marriage, but they are better off than they would be if they didn’t get married.
Who are the people you surveyed?
[We used] a large pre-existing data set collected from 1991 to present. It’s an ongoing naturally representative sample of British households. It has over 30,000 people in it. What we did is we took this large longitudinal study and selected out a sample of people who started off the study unmarried and at some point in time during the study got married and then stayed married either until the end of the study -- the last wave of data available -- or to the end of their participation in the study.
What makes your findings significant?
Prior to this study, the story was that marriage wasn’t associated with long-term gains in happiness. One might make the conclusion that marriage isn’t associated with long-term changes in happiness levels. But what this study adds is this comparison to the control group. It seems that marriage does play a role in people’s happiness in the long run, compared to where they would have been [if they had stayed single], when we compare to similar-aged individuals who aren’t married.
Given that marriage and happiness have been studied before, what makes your results unique?
The main things that make our study unique and advantageous over other studies are: One, few past studies have been able to examine this many people over such a long period of time. Two, few studies estimate a baseline level of life satisfaction prior to marriage and can make comparisons of whether or not people are happier to that baseline. Many other studies recruit people who are already married to participate -- you don't know how happy these people were prior to their marriage.
If one finds that these married people are different than unmarried people, one cannot tell whether it’s because they are married or because people who tend to get married are just happier to begin with. So, [the results might show that] married people may be happier than unmarried people, but you can't tell whether it’s due to the marriage itself, or to the fact that these people were happier before they got married.
How does your study compare to this one that was released in January, which found that married couples don’t have a psychological well-being edge over cohabiting couples?
Our study is not necessarily at odds with their findings. It could very well be the case that patterns similar to what we found would be observed in the cohabiting, unmarried couples in our sample. [The pattern we observed] is not necessarily restricted to people who are married. It could be the case that the protective effects of marriage lie largely in the fact that these people are in -- presumably -- loving, long-term relationships, and this may also be a characteristic of cohabiting couples. However, we did not compare cohabiting couples in this study -- so our results don't speak to this question.