Married people have had a lot to be smug about. The research so far has said so. A 2010 study found that marriage and committed relationships reduce production of stress hormones.
A 2011 study found that women in committed relationships have better mental health, while men in committed relationships have better physical health. The researchers concluded: “On balance it probably is worth making the effort.”
A 2013 study found that not having a permanent partner, or spouse, during midlife is linked to a higher risk of premature death during those midlife years. In other words, being married helps you live longer.
A 2019 study found that married people are less likely to experience dementia as they age – while divorced people are about twice as likely as married people to develop dementia. (Divorced men showed a greater disadvantage than divorced women.)
The loved and the loveless almost match up
But a new study suggests that a loving relationship is not a superior pathway to life-long happiness and well-being.
Researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) conducted “one of the first studies of its kind to quantify the happiness of married, formerly married and single people at the end of their lives to find out just how much love and marriage played into overall well-being.”
The study examined the relationship histories of 7532 people – from ages 18 to 60 – to determine “who reported to be happiest at the end of their lives.”
Dr William Chopik, MSU assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the paper, in a prepared statement, said:
“People often think that they need to be married to be happy, so we asked the questions, ‘Do people need to be in a relationship to be happy? Does living single your whole life translate to unhappiness? What about if you were married at some point but it didn’t work out?
“Turns out, staking your happiness on being married isn’t a sure bet.”
Participants rated their own happiness
The researchers found that participants fell into one of three groups:
- 79 per cent were consistently married, spending the majority of their lives in one marriage
- Eight per cent were consistently single or otherwise spent most of their lives unmarried
- And 13 per cent had varied histories: a history of moving in and out of relationships, divorce, remarrying or becoming widowed.
The participants were asked to rate “overall happiness” when they were older adults and compared it with the group into which they fell.
Ms Mariah Purol is an MSU psychology master’s student and co-author. She said:
“We were surprised to find that lifelong singles and those who had varied relationship histories didn’t differ in how happy they were.
“This suggests that those who have ‘loved and lost’ are just as happy towards the end of life than those who ‘never loved at all.'”
Married people still nudged ahead of the pack
Married people showed a slight uptick in happiness, but Ms Purol said the margin was not substantial – nor what many may expect.
If the consistently married group rated their happiness four out of five, consistently single people rated their happiness at 3.82 and those with varied history rated 3.7.
“When it comes to happiness, whether someone is in a relationship or not is rarely the whole story,” said Dr Chopik.
“People can certainly be in unhappy relationships, and single people derive enjoyment from all sorts of other parts of their lives, like their friendships, hobbies and work.
“In retrospect, if the goal is to find happiness, it seems a little silly that people put so much stock in being partnered.”
The researchers suggest that if an individual isn’t “completely happy” to begin with, getting married won’t likely dramatically change it all.
“It seems like it may be less about the marriage and more about the mindset,” said Ms Purol.
“If you can find happiness and fulfillment as a single person, you’ll likely hold onto that happiness – whether there’s a ring on your finger or not.”
There is something to keep in mind here, though. Studies (here, here and here) and surveys find that people in their 60s rate their contentment higher than younger people – and, despite the aches and pains that come with age, their advanced life stage is the happiest time of their lives.
Age may be the great equaliser in this study, with love nudging ahead regardless.