Editor’s Note: The following essay is a lightly edited version of a speech presented by Dr. Marina Adshade at an event sponsored by the Women’s Health Research Cluster and Faculty of Arts at the University of British Columbia, titled, “Happy Ever After: How marriage impacts our health and happiness.” It is published here with her permission.
Back in 1986, when I was just 19 years old, Newsweek magazine struck terror into the hearts of an entire generation of educated single women with a viral news story, claiming that by prioritizing education, women were significantly reducing their chances of ever getting married.
The article titled, “Too Late for Prince Charming?” warned that if an educated woman was still single on her 25th birthday, she only had a 50% chance of marrying. By age 30, that probability fell to 20%, and by age 35, that chance fell to 5%. And if—God forbid—a woman was still single at the age of 40, she was more likely to get struck by lightning than to ever walk down the aisle clutching a bouquet of flowers.
More than 30 years later, we know how wrong these predictions were: even among those women who postponed marriage until after the age of 40, almost 70% eventually married.
And it didn’t take 30 years for evidence to become available that these predictions were just plain wrong—despite being made by reputable academics from Yale and Harvard. The research was unpublished and, hence, not peer reviewed.
But despite being false, this belief became part of the social narrative where women were warned, over and over, that if marriage was not prioritized over everything else, then (horrifyingly!) it might never happen. And we would be left to a life of misery.
This narrative is well summed up in a scene from the movie Sleepless in Seattle when a co-worker of Annie (aka Meg Ryan) warns her: “It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of 40.” To which Annie responds, “That statistic is not true!” and her friend replies, “That’s right—it’s not true. But it feels true.”
I was reminded of this phenomenon earlier this year when The Guardian published an article quoting an economist from the London School of Economics, who claimed that single, childless women are the happiest subpopulation, saying, “If you are man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother.”
I have to admit that when I read this article, the academic in me said, “That statistic is not true!” but the voice of the single woman said, “That’s right—it’s not true. But it feels true.”
Researchers who are knowledgeable in this area and very familiar with how the data is used in this particular analysis—again not published in a peer-reviewed journal—quickly discredited this finding that single women are healthier and happier. Yet this story quickly went viral, appearing in hundreds of media outlets around the globe.
The media never seems to tire of telling women how to live their own lives. But there is more to this story, and I think that is because this story feels true to so many of us.
So, what do we really know about marriage, health, and happiness?
Are Married People Happier?
The cautious answer to this question is, yes: married people do appear to be happier than people who are not married, including people who are never married. And, in fact, contrary to the assertion made in The Guardian, marriage appears to make women happier than men.
But this is a difficult relationship to unpack, and not only because happiness is a hard concept to measure. That really is a small part of the problem since we can ask people subjective questions like “On a scale of one to 10, how satisfied are you with your life right now?”
The larger issue is that people who are happy with their lives are also more likely to get married.
But we can find ways to deal with this problem using data collected from the same individuals over multiple waves that track them from the years before they are married to the years after they are married. Evidence published by my colleague, John Helliwell (and Shawn Grover) in the Journal of Happiness Studies finds that marriage makes people happier and that they continue to be more satisfied years into the marriage.
Marriage might make people happier, but it is no guarantee of happiness.
There two things that are really interesting about this research. The first is the biggest effect of happiness and marriage takes place when people are middle-aged—which, it turns out, is the least happy stage of our lives. That gap in happiness between the married and unmarried is narrower when people are younger and starts to disappear after the age of 60.
Which means I have about 8 years to find someone if I want marriage to make me happy!
The second really interesting finding here is that the biggest boost to marriage is among people who consider their partner their best friend—which, in this data at least, is only true in about 50% of the married people surveyed. It seems that the most important factor here is not so much marriage per se, as it is about having a friend who is there by your side when life becomes challenging.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the differences in happiness between married and single people might be statistically significant. But they are not large. Not only is the gap small, but there are wide distributions in the level of happiness—so much so that many single people are happier than the average married person. And many married people are less happy than the average single person.
Marriage might make people happier, but it is no guarantee of happiness.
Are Married People Healthier?
Again, here the answer appears to be yes. Married people appear to be healthier and live longer than those who are single, separated, divorced, or widowed. They have better mental health, fewer health conditions, and recover faster from illness.
In the past, studies found that marriage provided more health benefits to men than women, but that effect is disappearing, and more recent studies find pretty similar outcomes for men and women.
But there are few caveats here.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that people who are healthy are not only more likely to be married but they are also more likely to stay married since serious health problems put stress on relationships. This makes it even more difficult for us to unpack the causality here on whether or not marriage itself makes us healthier.
The second is that most of this research has been done in the United States, where individuals who married are significantly more likely to have health insurance. We have to be careful because is not entirely clear that the strength of this relationship would hold up in countries like Canada, with universal health care.
There is also substantial evidence that while being happily married might make us healthier, being unhappily married is very bad for your health. Research finds that compared to individuals who were in “very happy” marriages, those who were “not too happy” are twice as likely to report poor health and have significantly higher mortality rates.
But not only are these people less healthy than people who are happily married—they are less healthy than people who have never been married, and people who are divorced.
There is also a very real possibility that doctors approach seriously-ill patients who are married differently than they do patients who are single, and evidence backs this up. A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine finds that one of the reasons that married people are likely to survive cancer—a phenomena that was previously explained as married people have “more to live for”—is that doctors assume that single people do not have the social supports to endure more aggressive treatments. If doctors are biased against single people in a way that leads to worse health outcomes, then some of this effect we are seeing really has nothing to do with the benefits of marriage.
Finally, social supports matter here. But it appears that this relationship between better health and marriage is eroding over time—that marriage provided better insurance against poor health in the past than it does today. There are many reasons for why we might see this, but the most obvious is that single people today are far less isolated then they were in the past—in part, because there are so many of us and also—it seems to me—because we are taking care of one another.
Should You Be Married to be Happier and Healthier?
If I leave you with one piece of advice, it is this: Don’t let academics tell you how to live your life!
The more interesting question that needs to be asked is should we, as a society, be prioritizing marriage over other ways of living? I’m going to leave answering that question to others. But I will say this: we have something to learn from the benefits that marriage bestows on men and women. Not necessarily that we need to take action to increase marriage rates, but at least to recognize the role of social connectivity in making people happier and healthier. Ensuring that people have good social networks seems like a reasonable personal and societal goal.
Dr. Marina Adshade is a faculty member at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University. Her book, Dollars and Sex: How economics influences sex and love, has been published in 10 different languages and is available in bookstores around the globe.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.