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Happier ever after?

March 17, 2003|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

One of the most consistent findings in social science is that married people are happier than their unmarried peers. But new research shows that getting married actually improves people's sense of well-being very little, if at all.

Such a union is highly variable and has no predictable effect on personal satisfaction, the new study says. Some people discover great pleasure in it; some are miserable; most find themselves neither much more nor much less happy than they were when single. Happily married people in the study tended to be very satisfied with their lives before they tied the knot. And their unmarried peers were less satisfied from the beginning of the study and didn't much change.

It is when a marriage ends, in divorce or widowhood, that people's overall levels of satisfaction appear to change most.

"We had this strong idea that people's sense of well-being would adapt pretty quickly to both positive and negative changes; it would go up or down, and then return to baseline levels," said Richard Lucas, a psychologist at Michigan State University and lead author of the paper. "But it didn't quite turn out that way, especially when it came to widowhood.... A person's life circumstances appear to determine their reaction to these changes."

The study, which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, relied on data from about 24,000 adults of all ages living in Germany between 1984 and 1995. It is one of the largest, long-term investigations of the effects of marital change to date.

In many previous experiments, researchers took snapshots of married life, comparing the well-being of married couples with that of unmarried people of the same age and income. On scales running from 0 (totally unhappy) to 10 (totally happy), married people scored significantly higher than unmarrieds, by up to a full point on the scale.

But Lucas and his colleagues analyzed reports from the same people, both before and after they got married. The difference in life satisfaction scores shrank to one-tenth of a point. "Very close to zero," said Lucas.

The men and women who were most satisfied with their lives when single reported the smallest improvements from marriage. This makes some sense, psychologists say. Those who score at the very high end on satisfaction questionnaires tend to be extremely social. They enjoy the company of other people, they tend to have many good friends, and often close family members. "A person like this with a rich social network probably has less to gain from the companionship of marriage," Lucas said.

When the researchers analyzed changes in well-being following divorce and widowhood, the results took an unexpected turn. The authors anticipated that people with high levels of life satisfaction would have the mental resources to buffer themselves against life's cruelties. After all, earlier studies have shown that people eventually bounce back even after sudden and dramatic life changes, such as a paralyzing spinal injury. Though no one is indifferent to death or divorce, psychologically buoyant people might not suffer as deeply as others, or for as long, researchers had thought.

Yet those reporting the highest life satisfaction were those whose moods plunged most sharply after divorce or the death of their spouse. Widowed men and women who did not remarry needed an average of eight years to approach their previous level of well-being; some didn't entirely recover. Their internal good cheer, in short, was bound up more tightly with the circumstances of their lives than the researchers had supposed.

"The person who is very satisfied with life because marriage is wonderful simply has more to lose if his or her spouse dies," the authors concluded.

Marital therapists say that people with naturally high levels of well-being tend to invest heavily even in difficult marriages. They are able to find some satisfaction in a less-than-ideal match.

"It's quite possible that the people with these personalities most enjoy being with a partner; it really brings them alive, even if it's not a perfect match," said Mary Hotvedt, a Tucson family psychologist and the president of the American Assn. for Marriage and Family Therapy. "When they lose that partner they've invested so much in, it just hits very hard."

Linda Waite, a sociologist and marriage scholar at the University of Chicago, said that married couples don't always realize how much they have invested in their marriage. Both married men and women, on average, live longer than unmarried peers, and run lower risks of developing heart disease, among other ailments, she said. Married people also tend to have more satisfying sex lives than single peers, more financial resources and a better shot at avoiding depression and alcohol abuse.

"Unfortunately," said Waite, "we may not take into account all these things ... until the marriage is over."

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