Marriage and Happiness; The Guardian and Accuracy

June 1, 2019 by Robert Franklin,  Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization 

Are married adults happier than unmarried adults?  Yes (IF Studies, 5/28/19).  The Guardian newspaper doesn’t like the fact, but it’s true nevertheless (The Guardian, 5/25/19).

Sociologists have for decades understood that married people report much higher rates of overall happiness than do never married or separated/divorced people.  But not much recent research had been conducted on the matter.  So W. Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger decided to see if things had changed since Jesse Bernard did the original research 47 years ago. 

Not much has.

The linked-to article shows 40% of married people with kids and 41% without kids calling themselves “very happy.”  That’s almost double the rate of never married and separated/divorced people.  The same holds true when only women are asked.

By contrast, just 6% of married childless people and 7% of those married with kids call themselves “not too happy.”

In short, there’s a hefty benefit in terms of overall happiness to be had from marriage.

Now, when health and men’s earnings are considered, marriage is also associated with a benefit.  Married people tend to be healthier and married men earn more than their unmarried peers, but that appears to be at least in part a function of selection bias. 

Studies have shown that the benefits of marriage for health and men’s wages are a product of selection, not causation: healthier men and men with greater earning capacity are more likely to get married in the first place.

That of course looks very much like a basic component of evolutionary biology, i.e. sexual selection.  Women tend to want as mates men who are healthy and seem to be good providers.  Reach back into hominid evolution as far as you like and the same holds true.  Why not now?

In short, the Wilcox/Wolfinger study is new, but its results aren’t.  We’ve known them for a long time, but it’s educational to establish that the benefits of marriage to people’s happiness is still very much intact.

That of course raises an obvious question: why do federal and state governments discourage marriage and encourage divorce?  It’s a question I’ve asked before in different contexts, but the same holds true for people’s happiness. 

Alimony and child support provide financial incentives for women to divorce and for men to avoid marriage.  Child support enforcement mechanisms do the same.  No-fault divorce eases the process.  Community property laws tend to make divorce attractive for the lower earner and marriage unattractive for the spouse who earns more.  Pro-mother/anti-father child custody outcomes are more of the same and, as we know, that’s why 70% of divorces are filed by women.

All that and more add up to a public policy that announces loudly and clearly to men “Don’t marry!” and to women “Divorce!”  It’s as if our governments want us to be unhappy.

Meanwhile, The Guardian gets the matter wrong.  The good news is that it admitted as much after the fact.  Here’s what The Guardian reported economist Paul Dolan saying:

Married people are happier than other population subgroups, but only when their spouse is in the room when they’re asked how happy they are. When the spouse is not present: f***ing miserable.

Apparently he either didn’t say that or didn’t mean it because it’s been removed from the article with this rather craven apology.

This article was amended on 30 May 2019 to remove remarks by Paul Dolan that contained a misunderstanding of an aspect of the American Time Use Survey data.

But the article is still fundamentally at odds with the facts.  For example, its headline reads “Women are happier without children or a spouse, says happiness expert.”

Hmm.  A casual glance at Wilcox and Wolfinger’s data calls those assertions into serious question.  Yes, 41% of married women with children call themselves “very happy” versus 45% of married women without kids.  But those 41% still far outnumber the 27% of divorced women without kids and the 24% of unmarried women without kids who say they’re “very happy.”  The point being that happiness for women has a lot more to do with whether they’re married or not than whether they have children.

But that of course didn’t keep The Guardian from joining state and federal governments in trying to convince women that marriage isn’t in their interests.

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