Sunday, February 08, 2015

The economics of love, happiness & marriage. Marry your best friend

Take heart. In the leadup to Valentines Day I am the bearer of incredibly good news.

Getting married - to someone you really, really like - will make you happy for the rest of your life.

Trust me. I am speaking partly from my own experience and party on the basis of new research that overturns much of what had previously been thought.

It's long been known that married people are happier than those who stay single. (Naturally there are exceptions. The finding is an average, derived from answers to the standard question used to establish life satisfaction: All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?)

But what was also known was that happier people were more likely to get married. This meant that the people themselves might have made marriage happy rather than the other way around. Or it might have been something else about the married people themselves; such as being more social, healthier, better-educated or in more engaging jobs - all features of life common in people likely to married and all likely to boost their happiness whether or not they tie the knot.

And there was something else. While marriage seemed to lift happiness briefly, after two to five years of it happiness receded, leaving those got married little happier than before.

The new research finds neither of these qualifications persuasive and adds something extra - a guide as to who you should marry.

It's entitled: How's life at home? New evidence on marriage and the set point for happiness. It was published in Decembert by the US National Bureau of Economic Research and prepared by two Canadian economists, Shawn Grover and John Helliwell.

First, the observation that happy people get married, as well as the other way around. The economists find that being happy before marriage does indeed increase the likelihood of getting married, but not by enough to explain the link between marriage and happiness. Marriage itself does the rest...

Second, the observation that married people start out happier and then get less happy over time. It's true that marriage gives a burst to happiness which appears to fade, but that's because happiness itself is U-shaped. Most of us are very happy in our twenties, much less happy in our thirties, forties and early fifties and then increasingly happy again from our mid fifties. By our mid seventies we are about as happy as we were in our mid twenties.  

For people who are married happiness is also U-shaped, which is why after lifting at the time they get married, happiness fades throughout their thirties, forties and early fifties. But at each age for the rest of their married lives they remain happier on average than if they had never married. People who believed the decline in happiness in the early years of marriage meant the effect of marriage faded were drawing the wrong conclusion. Almost everyone has a decline in happiness in those years, but the people who are married are floating on a higher plane, their U-shape higher than the U-shape of people who had never married.

Even more importantly, the U-shape is flatter in people who've married, less like a V. The gloom that many of us sink into in the middle of our lives is less severe if we've someone by our side.

Not content with this finding, Grover and Helliwell went further and tried to work out was the best kind of person to have by our side, from the point of view of happiness.

It's the person who is also our best friend.

Only around half of the married people taking part in the  British Household Panel Survey said their husband or wife was also their best friend. (For couples living together but not married the figure was just 5 per cent.)

The half that were married to their best friend had almost twice the boost to happiness as those that were not. The effect was stronger for women than men. Being married to your best friend appears to be about the best thing you can do for your lifetime happiness when it comes relationships.

But what if you don't love your best friend? The New York Times offered one particularly adventurous solution in January in an article entitled To Fall in Love with anyone Do This. If suggested looking into each others eyes and asking a series of 36 questions. If that seems too much it might be worthwhile adjusting what you're looking for. Friendship is about the most important thing there is.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

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