Marriage Makes You A Bit Happier - For A While

Marriage may give people a small boost in happiness, new research has shown, but experts argue over why positive effects appear short lived.

Dr Richard Lucas of Michigan State University in the U.S. and colleagues argue in the latest issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that people lose their initial increase in happiness at being married because they get used to married life.

The researchers studied 24,000 people over a 15-year period, focussing on the relationship between their marital status and their state of happiness. They found that, on average, most people were no more satisfied with life after two years of marriage than they were prior to marriage. The researchers argue that the results highlight the role of the process of adaptation in life satisfaction.

According to Professor Bob Cummins of Australia's Deakin University in Geelong, the concept behind this form of adaptation to events is based on the idea that people have an internal system that maintains their wellbeing at a constant level - a kind of 'emotional thermostat' dubbed by researchers the wellbeing homeostasis.

In the 1970s, influential American psychologists Dr Philip Brickman and Dr Don Campbell showed that people who had won huge amounts of money - or who experienced debilitating injuries - appeared not to greatly differ in life satisfaction from the average person. They adapted over time to the profound event that had occurred.

In the new study, Lucas and colleagues argue that the same process operates in marriage. They found that on average, people have just under one per cent increase in happiness after marriage; but that their satisfaction with life eventually returns to what it was before the marriage.

However, Cummins argued that Lucas and his colleagues did not have the data to make the claim. The Deakin University researcher is himself involved in a three-monthly survey of Australians, called the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, which measures wellbeing in the Australian population.

"The big mistake these researchers have made is that they've only looked at marriage, and have forgotten to measure the effect other things such as children and mortgages," Cummins told ABC Science Online.

He agreed there was a dip in life satisfaction in people aged 30 to 50, irrespective of marriage, but argues that this is likely to be due to the increase in responsibilities at that time. He disagrees that adaptation is likely to be a key factor.

"Marriage is not an event like buying a new car," he said. "It's a dynamic ongoing process that provides social connectedness which is very important to humans."

There is every reason to expect, added Cummins, that a successful marriage - the only type studied at by Lucas and colleagues - would have a lasting positive influence on life satisfaction.

Horses for courses

Lucas and colleagues did add more solid data to previous reports that happy people tend to be more likely to get married, and that depending on the original level the happiness thermostat was set at, the effect of marriage would be variable. They found that the most satisfied people reacted less favourably to marriage and most negatively to divorce and widowhood.

"An event such as marriage or divorce does not have the same implications for all individuals," the American and German researchers said. "A person who is very satisfied with life probably has a rich social network and has less to gain from the companionship of marriage. On the other hand, the person who is lonely and, therefore, somewhat dissatisfied, can gain much by marrying."

"Similarly, the person who is very satisfied with his or her life because their marriage is wonderful has more to lose if their spouse dies," they said.

The study involved people in Germany between 1984 and 1995. The participants were asked how satisfied they were with their life in general, using a scale that ranged from zero (totally unhappy) to 10 (totally happy). Their answers were then compared to their marital status, controlling for yearly changes in overall life satisfaction in Germany due to the fall of the Berlin Wall and other factors.

Anna Salleh - ABC Science Online

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