Marriage: Is There a Hitch?

Does marriage make you happy? Or do happy people tend to be the marrying kind? The facts about wedded bliss

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Eternal love, the creation of a new family, the approval of society--whatever. What I really wanted to know three years ago before I proposed to Cassandra was, Will marriage make me happier? I was highly dubious about this, since the main rule of marriage seems to be that you can't have sex with other women. Unless marriage came with immeasurably better food--the kind that's the next best thing to sex--I couldn't see how this was going to work out for me.

Little did I know that teams of scientists around the globe were asking themselves the same question, which made me wonder just how easy it is to score a grant. What they have found is that marriage guarantees you almost nothing extra--not health, not happiness. All it really gets you is higher-count bedsheets. And I would sleep on 80-grit sandpaper for a night of bachelorhood.

People have long believed that being unmarried makes people unhappy. Entire Victorian novels, children's card games and phone calls with Jewish moms are built on this assumption. But a long-term study released in 2003 shows that marriage doesn't necessarily make people one bit happier.

That's the conclusion of Richard Lucas, a psychology professor at Michigan State University who dedicated himself to crunching the data from 15 years of interviews of more than 24,000 Germans. Using a complex gauge of happiness that many people know as "Rate yourself from 0 to 10," he discovered that couples upped their scores in the first blush of matrimony. But the ratings quickly subsided to where they were before the wedding. This isn't entirely surprising because a study in 1978 showed that people who win the lottery quickly adapt to their new situation--their happiness levels tend to stay on par with those of your average blue collar Joe.

Before marriage, the study subjects on average rated themselves 7.28. Their happiness then ratcheted up to 7.56 around wedding day. But two years into the marriage, they retreated to 7.28. My wife and I consider ourselves 8.5s but concede that if we were stuck in Germany with some psychologist calling us with annoying questions for 15 years, we would be 7.28.

The canard that marriage makes people happier and healthier probably stems from the fact that married people are indeed happier and healthier than single people. Studies from nearly every country have shown that married people are happier than single folks. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention titled "Marital Status and Health: United States, 1999-2002" showed that married people are less likely to be in poor-to-fair health, smoke or drink heavily, or suffer from such health problems as headaches and serious psychological distress. Couples who just live together are as sick as single people. I was feeling better about my choice.

But it turns out this is probably because married people, as a group, start out happy and healthy. People who are content are just more likely to get married and stay married. This makes sense. You won't see Fox creating a reality show called Who Wants to Marry a Sick, Old, Grumpy Dude?

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