Married not much happier than unmarried, study finds

March 17, 2003
Blog Entry, Brain & Behavior

In a large longitudinal study that sheds new light on the association between marital status and happiness, researchers have found that people get a boost in life satisfaction from marriage. But the increase in happiness is very small — approximately one tenth of one point on an 11-point scale — and is likely due to initial reactions to marriage and then a return to prior levels of happiness. Data from the 15-year study of over 24,000 individuals living in Germany also indicates that most people who get married and stayed married are more satisfied with their lives than their non-married peers long before the marriage occurred.

From the American Psychological Association:
ARE MARRIED PEOPLE HAPPIER THAN UNMARRIED PEOPLE?

Study Involving Over 24,000 People Finds General Life Satisfaction Affects Attitude Toward Marital Happiness

WASHINGTON – In a large longitudinal study that sheds new light on the association between marital status and happiness, researchers have found that people get a boost in life satisfaction from marriage. But the increase in happiness is very small — approximately one tenth of one point on an 11-point scale — and is likely due to initial reactions to marriage and then a return to prior levels of happiness. Data from the 15-year study of over 24,000 individuals living in Germany also indicates that most people who get married and stayed married are more satisfied with their lives than their non-married peers long before the marriage occurred.

The results, published in the March issue of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, highlight how the process of adaptation plays a role in life satisfaction. Although people may initially react strongly to life events, evidence suggests that they eventually return to their normal levels of happiness. Even people who have won huge amounts of money or who have experienced debilitating injuries appear not to greatly differ in life satisfaction from the average person.

Psychologist and study lead author Richard E. Lucas, Ph.D., of Michigan State University says he and his colleagues found that most people were no more satisfied with life after marriage than they were prior to marriage. Widows and widowers were less satisfied with life after the death of their spouse than they were prior to marriage, but even they showed signs of adaptation and most eventually returned close to their initial life satisfaction levels.

An additional and unexpected finding of the study is that the most satisfied people reacted least positively to marriage and most negatively to divorce and widowhood. This finding shows the importance of the total circumstances of their life and not just their personality, according to the researchers.

“An event such as marriage or divorce does not have the same implications for all individuals. A person who is very satisfied with life probably has a rich social network and has less to gain from the companionship of marriage. On the other hand, the person who is lonely and, therefore, somewhat dissatisfied, can gain much by marrying. Similarly, the person who is very satisfied with his or her life because their marriage is wonderful has more to lose if their spouse dies,” said the authors, who call this process “hedonic leveling” because it tends to equalize people’s overall happiness levels.

Participants of the study involved people living in Germany who entered the study from 1984 through 1995. The sample consisted of nearly 12,000 residents of West Germany, over 4,000 foreigners living in West Germany, over 5,000 residents of East Germany, and over 3,000 immigrants to West Germany. The participants were asked how satisfied they were with their life in general, using a scale that ranged from 0 (totally unhappy) to 10 (totally happy). Their answers where then compared to their marital status, controlling for yearly changes in overall life satisfaction in Germany due to the fall of the Berlin Wall and other factors.

Article: “Reexaming Adaptation and the Set Point Model of Happiness: Reactions to Changes in Marital Status,” Richard E. Lucas, Michigan State University, Andrew E. Clark, Departement et Laboratoire d’Economie Theorique et Appliquee, Yannis Georgellis, Brunel University, and Ed Diener, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 84, No. 3.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/journals/psp/press_releases/march_2003/psp843527.html

Reporters: Study authors Richard Lucas, Ph.D., and Ed Diener, Ph.D., are available for media interviews. Dr. Lucas can be reached by phone at 517-432-4360 or by email. Dr. Diener can be reached by phone at 217-333-4804 or by email.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.

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Married not much happier than unmarried, study finds

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