More Americans are unhappy because fewer are married

Happiness levels are declining in the United States, according to a new study, and one big factor seems to explain this, namely falling marriage rates. Conversely, married people are significantly happier than the unmarried. 

Sam Peltzman, professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, has studied trends and differences in happiness among the US population based on the General Social Survey (GSS) which has been collecting data about US adults since 1972.

Overall happiness levels are markedly down today compared with 50 years ago and the decline has been particularly steep since the early 2000s.

What is more, happiness levels differ by sex. Women were considerably happier than men in the 1970s after which point their happiness went into decline and declined more sharply than among men. The happiness level of both sexes is now about equal, but the question is, why were women happier in the early 1970s than today? Feminism should have had the opposite effect, surely?

According to the study, marriage stands out as the foremost indicator of happiness. The data collected since the 1970s reveal a consistent trend: the married population has been regularly 30 points happier than those who are unmarried. Notably, this pattern holds true for both men and women.

Among the unmarried categories including widowed, divorced, separated, and never married individuals, all of them exhibit significantly lower levels of happiness compared to the married population. Among these groups, separated individuals appear to be the least happy of all.

It is important to note that the study’s findings should not be simplistically interpreted as implying a direct cause-and-effect relationship, such as the notion that marriage inherently leads to happiness. It is plausible that individuals who are already unhappy might encounter challenges in finding a partner or maintaining a harmonious coexistence.

Nonetheless, the author of the research suggests that marriage and happiness share some common sources and the decline of marriage is linked to the trends in people’s contentment more than any other factor.

Marriage rates have fallen sharply in the US. In 1972, there were 10.9 new marriages per 1,000 adults, but this had plunged to just 6.5 in 2018. If marriage increases overall happiness levels (notwithstanding high divorce rates in the US), then it stands to reason that if marriage rates are falling, then so will average happiness.

Prof Peltzman comments: “The happiness landslide comes entirely from the married. Low happiness characterizes all types of non-married. No subsequent population categorization will yield so large a difference in happiness across so many people”.

Other socio-demographic characteristics are also significant but not to the same extent as marital status.

Income emerges as the second most important factor. As expected, the rich are happier than the poor. However, the richest band in US society is not happier than 50 years ago, even though it is wealthier. (This is because affluent people get used to their class status and do not appreciate marginal improvements.)

With regards to age, in the past happiness used to be higher for the over 45 group, with no significant difference between men and women, but this gap is disappearing. White people are happier than black, but the distance between them is narrowing. College graduates and those resident in the Northeast of the US are happier than the rest of the population. Conservatives are 10 point more satisfied than liberals but slightly less than politically moderates.

It is a pity that this study does not consider the role of religion. Other surveys have shown that religious faith and practice are positively associated with life satisfaction.

Prof. Sam Peltzman concludes that “any general analysis of happiness that ignores marital status is unlikely to be satisfactory.” He believes that research has focused too much on socio-demographic characteristics such as age, sex and education but this approach is unlikely to say much about significant trends within a society. Research and policies should concentrate instead on the positive role of marriage for individuals and for society.


New York Times columnist, David Brooks had a very good piece last week on how young people are now told a good career is much more important to fulfillment than marriage. He explains why this is wrong.  As he writes: “My strong advice is to obsess less about your career and to think a lot more about marriage. Please respect the truism that if you have a great career and a crappy marriage you will be unhappy, but if you have a great marriage and a crappy career you will be happy. Please use your youthful years as a chance to have romantic relationships, so you’ll have some practice when it comes time to wed. Even if you’re years away, please read books on how to decide whom to marry. Read George Eliot and Jane Austen. Start with the masters.”

Picture by Pablo Escobar from Unsplash