Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Marriage and happiness among young adults

On a show earlier this week, radio host Michael Savage asserted that young men today who delay marriage look back on their father's and grandfather's generations and think marrying and working like a dog at the bottom to support their families must have constituted a miserable existence.

I've only very recently even thought about marriage as a personal possibility in the next five years (made especially acute last weekend by a bachelor party), and I'm quite fortunate both financially and physically. The biggest sacrifice for me would be the devotion of time required. I perpetually feel strapped for time as it is--the plunge would be life-changing, and force me to abandon a lot of the pursuits that make me happy (at least while I'm engaged in them) that I throw myself into now. In short, I am one of those young men Savage is talking about.

The evidence that married people express higher levels of happiness than unmarried people do (especially among men, in contrast to the Game narrative) is pretty well established. But what about when the people in question are include only those in their late teens and twenties?

We could get into a discussion over what constitutes true happiness and field the legitimate criticism that self-reports set to a numerical scale are a shallow way to measure it. Also, I'm not controlling for other variables because trying to disentangle the marriage question from the social landscape surrounding it is fraught with an arbitrariness that allows for a range of preferred conclusions to be spun out. Present the datum as is, and the phrase "AE reports, you decide" applies. Yeah, I still like to intersperse a bit of my own commentary here and there, but it's not my starting point. I'm being entirely honest when I say that I cobble together most of a post before I even look at the data.

That said, the GSS reliably asks a simple question on self-perceptions of happiness levels. It is measured on a three point scale, inverted here so that higher scores indicate greater happiness. The following table shows average (mean) scores for men and women, by marital status, between the ages of 18-29 at the time of their participation in the survey. For contemporary relevance, only responses from 2000 onward are included (n = 2,305):

Aged 18-29
Married men
Married women
Unmarried men
Unmarried women

About one-quarter of Americans under the age of 30 are married, and despite the limitations it places on the individual, people who have made the plunge express higher levels of happiness than the unmarried majority does. One standard deviation is .62, so the differences in self-reported happiness between the married and unmarried are significant--it's half of a SD among men and nearly half of one among women.

My interpretation is that a family gives a person something to devote his life to in a way that must ultimately be more fulfilling than serial pleasure seeking (or novelty seeking, challenge seeking, glory seeking, etc) does. My aunt just sent me an old picture of my dad holding me as an infant in a rocking chair. He's almost exactly the same age in the photo as I am now. Looking at him, I can't help but feel he deserved to be happier at that age than I am today.

GSS variables used: MARITAL(1)(2-5), HAPPY, SEX, AGE, YEAR(2000-2010)


Anonymous said...

Great post. I wonder what these happiness numbers for 18-29s would look like if cross-referenced with church attendance.

Anonymous said...

The happiness thing has to be limited to conscientious smart folks. Limit the question by those static qualities rather than by age, and it will be more interesting. I married youngish, 21, to an older guy, who nonetheless is a lot like I am in intelligence, social class, background etc.

Audacious Epigone said...


Will do.


Limit the pool to smart, conscientious people and then see whether or not marriage and happiness are correlated, or compare smart, conscientious people to people who are unintelligent and not conscientious?

Anonymous said...

Liberalism is pretty popular with the youth and it's all about freedom, pleasure and individual rights. Besides that women are delaying marriage too.

Anonymous said...

What might be a happiness-maximizing strategy for most (marriage) is not necessarily the best strategy for all (alpha males). I think it is safe to say that most men would prefer the life of, say, George Clooney -- serial relationships with sexy attentive women -- than being married to a hausfrau. But most men realize that Clooney's lifestyle is out fo reach for them, and so "settle" for what they can get -- assuming they can find a woman who likewise is willing to settle for them. But some men may be better off learning "game" and sleeping with a string of women who may not be A-listers but are more fun than the same ol same ol. If I could do my life over again, I certainly wouldn't get married. Serial relationships with multiple women over my lifetime would be a much better lifestyle.

kurt9 said...

Marriage is fulfilling if you find a partner that shares the same interests, activities, and goals as yourself. For example, while in Mexico, I met this couple who had built their own ocean-going catamaran and were in the process of sailing around the world. They seemed to me a very happy couple. However, the conventional life pattern of house payments, expensive car payments, and college education payments (along with medical costs) does not strike me as a very happy existence. This sounds more like wage/debt slavery to me. I fail to see how this could make one happy.

Anonymous said...

You've been thinking about marriage? Will someone with your weird personality and outlook actually find a mate?