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The Best Predictor of Happiness in America? Marriage


August 2, 2023

Americans who are married with children are now leading happier and more prosperous lives, on average, than men and women who are single and childless.

Is that statement surprising? In an age that prizes individualism, workism, and a host of other self-centric “isms” above marriage and family, it may well be. But the reality is that nothing currently predicts happiness in life better than a good marriage. 

This truth is borne out yet again in new research from the University of Chicago, which found that marriage is the “the most important differentiator” of who is happy in America, and that falling marriage rates are a chief reason why happiness has declined nationally. The research, surveying thousands of respondents, revealed a startling 30-percentage-point happiness divide between married and unmarried Americans. This happiness boost held true for both men and women.

“Marital status is and has been a very important marker for happiness,” researcher Sam Peltzman concludes. “The happiness landslide comes entirely from the married. Low happiness characterizes all types of non-married. No subsequent population categorization will yield so large a difference in happiness across so many people.”

Other factors do matter — including income, educational achievement, race, and geography — but marital status is most influential when it comes to predicting happiness in the study. “This difference is stable over time. It is about the same whether the unmarried state is due to divorce, separation, death of spouse or never having married,” Peltzman says.

What’s more, he finds that happiness has fallen since the turn of the millennium, and points to marriage as the biggest driver of that decline. In his words, the “recent decline in the married share of adults can explain (statistically) most of the recent decline in overall happiness”.

Notably, this decline has been concentrated among less educated and lower-income Americans; college-educated and affluent Americans have seen virtually no dip in their happiness. Psychologist and author Dr. Jean Twenge, in her own analysis of the General Social Survey, finds that the decline in marriage among working-class and poor Americans is one of the biggest factors explaining the growing happiness divide between the privileged and unprivileged.

The bottom line is that the United States is increasingly riven when it comes to happiness between the haves and have-nots, in large part because record numbers of less privileged Americans are not succeeding at getting, not to mention remaining, married. 

To fix what ails America, we need to renew marriage and familial ties, especially in poor and working-class communities where the fabric of family life is weakest. A big step forward would be to eliminate marriage penalties that keep too many parents from exchanging vows. The blame lies at the federal level, where policymakers have established tax and safety-net benefits over the last six decades that too frequently punish marriage, especially for the working class and poor. Programmes like Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance, often penalise couples with kids if they marry. The Government must stop making marriage a bad financial bet for lower-income families.

It’s well past time we acknowledged that helping American men and women build meaningful and satisfying lives for themselves and their children requires a renewed emphasis on the importance of marriage. This should not be dependent on where they sit across the class divide. 

About the Author

W. Bradford Wilcox