The findings from decades of studies have suggested that a happy marriage makes for a happy life. Married folks report higher well-being than those who are single, divorced or widowed and data connects marriage with emotional, social and health benefits including longer lifespans and lower levels of anxiety, depression and distress.
But new research out of Michigan State University suggests that previous studies that measure marriage and happiness at one point in time may offer an incomplete picture.
How is this study different from the many before it?
This study, conducted by William Chopik and Mariah Purol, looked at data from 532 respondents from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). PSID is a study that has followed a nationally representative sample of U.S. individuals and their families since 1968. They looked at marital histories both prospectively and retrospectively including annual marital history updates.
Rather than simply looking at whether or not a person is married, single, divorced or widowed at a single moment in time, the researchers looked at relationships over the long term to account for transitions and answer some of the bigger questions about marriage and happiness: “‘Do people need to be in a relationship to be happy? Does living single your whole life translate to unhappiness? What about if you were married at some point but it didn’t work out?”
They found that participants fell into one of three groups: 79% were consistently married over the course of their lifetime; 8% were consistently single; and 13% had varied histories, or, a history of moving in and out of relationships, divorce, remarrying or becoming widowed.
How do we even begin to measure or define happiness?
Happiness is subjective and self-assessed levels of happiness vary according to our expectations. In this study, they measured life satisfaction with one item: ‘Please think about your life as a whole. How satisfied are you with it?’ Responses ranged from 1 (completely satisfied) to 5 (not at all satisfied).
What did they find?
Lifelong singles and those who moved in and out of relationships reported similar happiness levels. So finding romantic love doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be happier; when it comes to romantic love, it may not be better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.
Married folks reported marginally higher levels of happiness — the researchers explained that the differences was not substantial or what might have been expected. If the consistently married group answered a 4 out of 5 on how happy they were, consistently single people answered a 3.82 and those who are in and out of relationships rated a 3.7.
So what does this mean?
It means that you’re likely to find happiness or fulfilment regardless of whether or not you partner up. We still have a wealth of research suggesting that social support is positively correlated with life satisfaction, so relationships matter — but they don’t necessarily have to be intimate or romantic. Focusing on cultivating and enriching the relationships we have — with friends, family, neighbours — may be just as important as prioritizing intimate relationships. We can find love and fulfilment in community — not just in romantic connections.
If you’re in an unhappy relationship, what can you do to address your unhappiness?
Take some time to define happiness or fulfilment for yourself. Oftentimes, we recognize deficits, but don’t clearly identify what is is we need.
I think it can be helpful to identify your desired feelings first. How do you want to feel? What emotions do you want to experience more often and what feelings are hindering your happiness or fulfilment? Write them down. And then write down all of the ways you can cultivate those feelings. Don’t begin to look at external sources until you’ve identified what you can do to address the gaps or deficits.
Once you’ve identified what it is you can do to improve your relationship satisfaction, start to consider requests you can make of your partner. Write those down too. The list of things you can do should be longer than the list of requests for your partner, as the former is something you can control.
This isn’t a ten minute process. It has likely taken years to arrive at this place in your relationship, so it will take some time to really consider what it is you’re looking for. The more specific you are, the more likely you’ll both be to follow through.
This study may have not shown remarkable differences in happiness levels between married and unmarried folks, but this doesn’t mean that relationships don’t matter. They matter immensely, but the quality matters more than their mere existence.
(Waite, L. J. , & Gallagher, M. (2001). The case for marriage: Why married people are happier, healthier, and better off financially . Random House Digital, Inc.)
Ross, C. E. , Mirowsky, J. , & Goldsteen, K. (1990). The impact of the family on health: The decade in review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52(4), 1059–1078. https://doi.org/10.2307/353319
Schone, B. S. , & Weinick, R. M. (1998). Health-related behaviors and the benefits of marriage for elderly persons. The Gerontologist , 38(5), 618–627. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/38.5.618