We know how important relationships are to our happiness.
Given that our closest relationship is with our spouse, our spouse (or lack thereof) should be a really important factor in our happiness, right?
This seemed like the obvious place to start in understanding relationships and happiness, so I dove into the research on marriage. The data on whether marriage makes you happier is…a bit complicated.
Statistics and You
I haven’t watched the TV show Scrubs in years, but one line has always stuck with me: “Statistics mean nothing to the individual.”
I recently looked up the larger quote for context:
As doctors we know that people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have an 85% death rate within five years, whereas people having an appendectomy have a 95% survival rating, but we both know pancreatic cancer sufferers who are still alive and appendicitis patients who didn’t make it. Statistics mean nothing to the individual.
This is an important idea to remember while diving into this topic.
If 50% of marriages end in divorce, it doesn’t mean that your particular marriage is a coin flip. If statistics show a particular pattern of happiness or unhappiness, it is worth understanding that trend, but it is not an inevitability in your life.
The Clear Trends
With that caveat out of the way, we’re onto the research!
There are a couple of relatively clear trends in the data before things get muddled.
One of these is that marriage produces a short term boost to happiness. Generally you will get a boost that lasts up to two years before it starts wearing off as you settle into your new life.
The second is that having a baby or a teenager at home makes marriages less happy. (More on kids and happiness next week!)
Happy Marriages Are Happy (Duh)
Other than that, it really depends on what your marriage is like.
This may sound obvious, but whether your marriage makes you happier or not depends on whether it is a happy marriage.
Studies find that happiness in marriage tends to decline in the five to ten year range and then begins an upward climb around your twentieth anniversary.
But those studies only include couples that are still married after all those years.
Couples that got divorced are obviously not getting that twenty year boost to their marriage and their happiness. (Although it is worth noting that after an immediate drop in happiness, divorcees end up climbing back above their pre-divorce levels.)
Marriage Advice by the Numbers
I’m not a marriage counselor and I don’t pretend to be one.
I’m going to dive into what we can learn from the numbers, which will, by definition, include some marriage advice.
I’ve only been married for three years, so while some of this will be based on my experiences, most will be based on the data. Feel free to form your own opinions from the numbers and take or leave my conclusions as you see fit.
The Power of Gratitude
The studies show that getting married gives you a happiness boost that lasts for up to two years before fading away. The research cannot specifically identify a cause to any degree of scientific certainly, but it looks a lot like the hedonic adaptation that we’ve already studied.
The basic idea is that you have this great new aspect of your life (a life partner!), but over time you take it for granted and it becomes incorporated into your expectations. You lose that happiness boost because you get used to having your spouse around.
The best way to fight this tendency is practicing gratitude.
Put in the time and effort to regularly remind yourself about things you love about your spouse. Appreciate each other. Make an effort to thank them for the things that they do. This will make them feel more loved and appreciated, but it will also remind you of the good things that they are doing and keep you from taking them for granted and losing that happiness boost.
Research that tracks the interactions of couples finds that happy marriages tend to have five positive statements or behaviors between spouses to every one negative. Make a conscious effort to raise your positivity ratio and you can hold on to your happiness boost.
Next the research shows that happiness in marriages declines from somewhere in the five to ten year range until around twenty years. That’s ten to fifteen years of decreasing happiness!
This most likely comes from life getting busier. For some couples this is when kids start to take up a lot of your time and you have less time together. For others it is when your career really starts to take off and sucks up more of your time. For some its both.
This is a time of life when spouses tend to become a bit less of a priority, and happiness in relationships declines as a result.
To combat this, we need to make sure that we are making time for each other. Stay in touch. Talk. More importantly, listen. Stay present.
Make time. Put a block of time in the calendar that is just for the two of you every week and work to stick to it.
Celebrate each others wins. Psychologists have found that we get an even bigger happiness boost when someone is excited and enthusiastic at our wins than when they console and comfort us on our losses. It helps to do both, of course, but make sure to get excited (and show it!) when your spouse succeeds.
Try New Things
Finally, we see a boost to happiness from marriages at the twenty year mark. This tends to coincide with a boost in time spent together as kids are getting older and jobs are getting less intense.
What we see is that couples are getting a new happiness boost from this extra time together and from experiencing new things together as they take new trips and try new things.
There’s no need to wait for retirement or for the kids to leave for college for this boost! We know from research that trying something new with someone strengthens our bond with them, so make sure you’re trying new things with your spouse throughout your relationship.
Travel together! There’s no need to feel guilty about taking time off from work or time away from kids. If your marriage is happier, then you’ll be a better employee and a better parent. Everybody wins!
A Happier Marriage
The data on marriage and happiness can show us trends and can help us understand what the average couple deals with.
Understanding these trends can help us capture the happiest parts of marriage while avoiding or minimizing the pitfalls.
Do the research. Do the work. Don’t be average.
Let your marriage boost your happiness.
Join the Conversation!
What do you think of the research? Have you faced ups and downs in your happiness? What tips have you found to a happier marriage? Let us know in the comments!