Does Marriage —> Happiness; Happiness —> Marriage; or Both?

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Many Americans are indifferent about marriage. In a 2019 Pew survey, 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, and nearly half of all adults, agreed that couples who want to stay together are “just as well off if [they] decide not to marry.” In 2007 to 2009 University of Michigan surveys, high school seniors expressed even less esteem for marriage, with only about a third agreeing that “most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living with someone.”

Yet it’s no secret among those of us who study such things that marriage is a major predictor of health and human flourishing. See, for example, these General Social Survey data which I extracted from more than 64,000 randomly sampled Americans since 1972 (showing, also, a COVID-related 2021 morale dip).

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So does marriage—what anthropologist Joseph Henrich says “may be the most primeval of human institutions”—make for happiness? Before assuming such, critical thinkers should wonder about two other possibilities.

First, does marriage (especially when compared to divorce) predict health and happiness merely because it compares those in surviving happy versus failed marriages?

To see if getting married predicts long-term health and well-being across all new marriages, Harvard epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele, with Ying Chen and colleagues, harvested data from 11,830 nurses who, in the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, were unmarried in 1989. They identified those who married versus those who didn’t in the next four years, and then tracked their lives for 25 years.

Even when including those who later divorced, those who had married were, 25 years later, healthier and less likely to have died. They were also happier, more purpose-filled, and less depressed and lonely.

Ah, but what about the second possibility: Were the to-be-married nurses simply happier, healthier, and richer to begin with? Did happiness à marriage rather than marriage à happiness?

Happy people do enjoy better and more stable relationships. Depressed people tend to be irritable, not fun to live with, and vulnerable to divorce. So surely happiness does predict marriage and marital stability.

Yet even after controlling for preexisting health and well-being, reports VanderWeele, marriage remains “an important pathway to human flourishing. It increases physical health, mental health, happiness, and purpose.” And not just for straight folks, I would add (as Letha Dawsom Scanzoni and I explained in our 2005 book, A Christian Case for Gay Marriage). Marriage is one effective way to help fulfill the deep human need that Aristotle long ago recognized—the need to belong.

Marriage mostly (though not always) works, VanderWeele suspects, because marriage provides companionship. It boosts health and longevity. And it offers sexual satisfaction. Thus, he reasons, societies’ tax, parental leave, and child-support policies should incentivize marriage. And marriage enrichment and counseling should be widely available.

Indeed, mindful that all healthy close relationships support our human need to belong, society should support varied opportunities for companionship and attachment. Our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our worship places, our recreational facilities, and our schools can all work at being places of supportive connection—places where you and I feel like we belong.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

Photo credit: Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).