Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study

Article excerpt

The literature on marital status and happiness has neglected comparative analysis, cohabitation, and gender-specific analysis. It is not clear if the married-happiness relationship is consistent across nations, if it is stronger than a cohabitation-happiness link, and if it applies to both genders. We address these issues using data from 17 national surveys. A multiple regression analysis determined that the relationship between marital status and happiness holds in 16 of the 17 nations and the strength of the association does not vary significantly in 14 of the 17 nations. Being married was 3.4 times more closely tied to the variance in happiness than was cohabitation, and marriage increases happiness equally among men and women. Marriage may affect happiness through two intervening processes: the promotion of financial satisfiction and the improvement of health. These intervening processes did not replicate for cohabitants.

Key Words: financial satisfaction, marital happiness, marital status, marriage.

Considerable support has been found for the thesis that marriage is associated with higher levels of personal well-being. This includes work on personal well-being (Bradburn, 1969; Coombs, 1991; Glenn, 1975; Gove, Hughes, & BriggsStyle, 1990; Horwitz, White, & Howell-White, 1996; Kessler & Essex, 1982; Mastekassa, 1992, 1993; Williams, 1988), health (Hahn, 1993; Joung et al., 1997; Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990; Verbrugge, 1979), mortality (Goldman & Hu, 1993; Gove, 1973; Hu & Goldman, 1990; Rogers, 1995; Trovato & Lauris, 1989), and suicide (Stack, 1990; Stack & Wasserman, 1995).

The advantage of the married over those who are not married appears to hold true for a specific indicator of well-being-global happiness. Studies, primarily based on data from the United States, have provided evidence that married persons report higher levels of personal happiness than persons of any unmarried status (Burt, 1987; Glenn & Weaver, 1979; Gove, Hughes, & BriggsStyle, 1983; Williams, 1988; see reviews in Weerasinghe & Tepperman, 1994, and Ross, 1995). In some multivariate models, marital status has been the most important predictor of happiness (Burt, 1987; Davis, 1984; Glenn & Weaver, 1979; Gove et al., 1983; Williams, 1988).

Several issues have been neglected in the previous research. First. most of the evidence is based on data from the U.S. Research based disproportionately on one nation is in need of replication (e.g., Kohn, 1987). Further work is needed to see if the findings will replicate in nations with different institutional and cultural frameworks. For example, the U.S. has the highest divorce rate in the world (United Nations, 1988). In nations with low rates of divorce, there may be less support for divorce, thus trapping unhappy people in marriage and lowering the mean level of happiness among the married. Second, comparative work is needed in order to weight the importance of marital status against national character in the shaping of happiness (Inglehart, 1990). It may be, for example, that national character is more important than marital status in explaining cross-national differences in levels of happiness. Research based on a single nation, which is typically the case in happiness research, cannot, by definition, test this proposition (Glenn & Weaver 1988; Gove et al., 1983; Joung et al., 1997). Third, previous research has neglected the status of cohabitant. According to the social integration theory of happiness (e.g., Umberson, 1987), it may be that marriage does not increase happiness any more than cohabitation. Fourth, much of the past research is marked by model misspecification (Glenn & Weaver, 1979; Gove et al., 1983). For example, few studies include religion and health in their models, although these factors, when included, often show powerful effects on happiness. Given that married people tend to be more religious and healthier than people who are not married, it is not clear if some of the past research is reporting a spurious relationship between marriage and happiness. …

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