Men become happier through marriage – but the opposite is true for women, according to eye-opening research by a behavioural scientist
Women who don’t get married or have children are happier than those who do, and may also live longer, says a leading academic in the field.
Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, has scoured data from the American Time Use Survey to compares levels of pleasure between married, unmarried, divorced and widowed individuals.
Those who are married report higher levels of happiness than the unmarried category; but only when their spouse is in the room. When their partner is not present, the opposite was true; they reveal themselves to be less happy than the unmarried group.
“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: fucking miserable,” said Dolan, speaking at the Hay Festival (as reported via the Guardian).
Dolan’s research is summarised in his new book, Happy Ever After. It examines the impact of marriage on finances and health – two major predictors of happiness – as well as participants’ assessment of their own wellbeing.
The professor concludes that marriage actually has a positive and “calming” impact on men, helping them to live longer. But the same is not true for married women, whose physical and mental health either stays constant or slightly declines with age, compared to their unmarried counterparts.
“You [the husband] take less risks, you earn more money at work, and you live a little longer,” says Dolan. “She [the wife], on the other hand, has to put up with that, and dies sooner than if she never married. The healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children.”
The parenthood penalty
Dolan’s comments chime with a growing body of similar research.
A groundbreaking study published by the American Journal of Society found a significant “happiness gap” between non-parents and parents, with the latter generally less happy in 22 countries around the world.
This difference is biggest in the States, where parents are 12% unhappier than non-parents – a distinction that authors put down to stress caused by a lack of state-level support in childcare, work flexibility and parental leave.
In fact, the biggest cause of the gaping gender pay gap worldwide is women taking maternity leave. Shared parental leave is key to solving this injustice, but even in countries where it’s available (like the UK), few men take advantage of it.
Marriage and emotional labour
Meanwhile, marriage is also problematic.
Data shows that, over the course of their adult lives, whether people have a romantic partner becomes less relevant to how lonely they feel. People can still be isolated, whether or not they’re in a committed relationship.
What’s more, couples are generally more insular than single people; they look inwards to each other, rather than out to the world.
And autonomy – a central facet of happiness – is best enjoyed by being single, especially over time and with age.
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Research shows that women are generally happier being single than men; arguably because they take better advantage of this freedom. Surely it’s no coincidence that women also solo travel more than men, and have more robust social networks.
Since women also invest more of themselves in romantic partnerships, it’s easy to see why marriage can become the less happy option for them.
Marriage, then, isn’t always the golden standard it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it can be an emotionally draining force that curtails individual ambition and the ability to make connections.
A brave new world
We’re not robots, of course. We need human relationships to survive and thrive. Marriages and parenthood sit within this roster, and can bring unlimited joy to those who choose them.
But perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that they’re the only sources of happiness.
We tell ourselves so many tales about being a mum or a wife, on all levels of society, that we forget reality presents a more varied picture.
Think about the parenthood penalty. “The cultural stories about parenthood are that it’s wonderful, children are great, it’s the best thing that happens to us. So why do we actually see these gaps?” says Jennifer Glass, professor of sociology at the University of Texas, who led the research.
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Other data shows that today’s single women are not only a fast-growing demographic, they’re hallmarked by a shared sense of “confidence, ambition and independence”.
“Today’s single women have a strong sense of self and reject the outdated notion that they’re missing out on all that life has to offer,” concludes this study into single women aged 30-45.
And yet, we persist with the idea that “ah, she just hasn’t met the right guy yet”. As Professor Dolan points out, “Maybe she’ll meet a guy who makes her less happy and healthy, and die sooner”.
The fact is, parenthood and marriage – noble institutions that they are – are not the be-all and end-all. There are other ways to live a happy life. And women, in particular, are waking up to this reality.
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