A new study finds marriage prevents unhappiness as we age. But is our society working to make singles sadder?
In what might be the most depressing study about marriage on record, Michigan State University scientists found that married people aren't any happier than they were when they were single—but tying the knot may protect them against slowly growing unhappier. The long-ranging study relied on thousands of participants to find that single people's happiness gradually declines over the years, while married people's satisfaction just levels off.
Happiness averages like these tend to erase the more complicated demographic details—satisfaction surely fluctuates based on the age and income at which people marry, along with why they get married, how many times they do it, whether they stay that way, and whether their marriages are actually functional. But let's say this data really does show that matrimony generally staves off unhappiness later in life. Is it any wonder, given how our society treats aging singles?
Million-dollar industries are predicated on the idea that single people, particularly single women, will be miserable and incomplete until they meet their match. Rejecting marriage in youth is socially acceptable, but when a single person's peers start to pair off, pressure from family and friends intensifies. Government and social benefits are still skewed in favor of married couples, from health insurance to mortgages to job promotions to financial security.
Unmarried activists have a word for this: discrimination. Some see it as analogous to the barriers gay couples face in states where same-sex marriage is illegal. “The argument of [same-sex marriage rights] advocates is, why do we have to be a certain kind of a couple in order to be treated fairly?” singles' rights activist Bella De Paulo told The Daily Beast in February. “My argument is wider-reaching: Why does anyone have to be part of any kind of couple to get the same federal benefits and protections as anyone else?” It's easy see why a married person might feel more satisfied in a world that accepts, celebrates, and financially supports coupled life.
As the ranks of single Americans grows, though, the obligatory marriage model is under threat. Today, one-quarter of all American households have just one person, and cohabitation is more popular than ever. But increasing numbers of singletons doesn't necessarily translate to real social and government support. As these singles age, we're going to have to come up with alternative models of community support that aren't centered exclusively on the nuclear family. This broader social isolation is another legit reason to be more unhappy than your married counterparts.
A more useful study might compare the satisfaction levels of singles who are unmarried by choice and those who wish they were married. I bet the former camp is happier because they've chosen their fate—even with the social obstacles that come with it.