CLINICIAN'S DIGEST: Marriage: Is There a Happiness Effect?

By Cooper, Garry | Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

CLINICIAN'S DIGEST: Marriage: Is There a Happiness Effect?


Cooper, Garry, Psychotherapy Networker


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Marriage: Is There a Happiness Effect?

Does marriage make people happier? A 15-year longitudinal study published this spring by psychologist Richard Lucas of Michigan State University casts light on the long-running debate between advocates for the psychological benefits of marriage and those less convinced of its inherent advantages. The study of more than 24,000 people, in the March Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , finds that after the initial euphoria of marriage wears off, people's sense of well-being usually returns to the level it was before marrying. One's sense of well-being in a marriage, the study suggests, has more to do with the psychological makeup of each individual partner than with his or her spouse or marriage itself.

Using an 11-point scale of subjective well-being (SWB), the operational term for happiness, the study found that most people's sense of well-being starts to rise in the months before marriage, then spikes and returns to the premarriage baseline within two years. This seems to support the growing research into emotional set-points, which finds that lottery winners and people who suffer disabilities return to their baseline a few years after their initial spike or downturn in SWB.

But the study also finds that emotional set-points aren't always determined by genetics and established personalities. Sometimes marriage and other life events do make a difference. When Lucas explored beyond the statistical mean, he found that about the same number of people developed a longer-lasting, higher SWB and a lower SWB after marriage. People with higher SWBs suffered the greatest SWB plunge when they were widowed and were least likely to return to their former level of happiness. People with higher SWBs also experienced less of a happiness spike before marriage; however, they stay married longer. This suggests that for people who are characteristically more unhappy, marriage initially may provide more excitement and hope, but they are the ones most likely to experience short-lived euphoria.

Other studies have found stronger relationships between marriage and happiness. But by using such a large sample and avoiding what psychologist Mavis Heatherington has called the romance with the statistical mean, Lucas's findings offer a more complex picture than the debates about the psychological benefits of marriage often reflect.

Poor Humor Research Is No Laughing Matter

Norman Cousins's landmark 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness , recounting how laughter helped him recover from a painful rheumatoid disease, popularized the belief that laughter and humor can cure physical and emotional ills. But at the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor convention in Chicago earlier this year, psychologist Rod Martin had sobering news for the assembled comedians, jugglers, clowns, therapists, and health care professionals. He informed them that there's little solid empirical support for widespread claims that humor strengthens the immune system or promotes physical and psychological healing. If Martin didn't leave 'em laughing, however, he did give them some hope. A fine-toothed combing of the research, he said, suggests that some kinds of humor may be linked with well-being.

Martin insists that humor research is contaminated by methodological problems. Many studies lack adequate controls and therefore can't really determine whether the beneficial effects they find are linked to spontaneous laughter, an ingrained sense of humor, or just a sanguine outlook on life. …

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