If all there was to go on were sitcoms, movies, and mainstream editorials, we’d have to conclude that marriage is a direct path to misery, the “old ball and chain” that only ties us down, limits our freedom, and cramps our sexual fun. Many people now think of marriage less as “settling down” and more as “settling.” Young people are told, “You’ve got plenty of time, live a little, first,” as if life ends after the wedding.
The truth about marriage, however, is that it is, statistically, the single best predictor of long-term happiness. Making this even more important to understand is that for at least the last 20 years now, Americans have been steadily getting less happy.
Writing at UnHerd, sociologist Brad Wilcox and the Institute for Family Studies’ David Bass point to new research from the University of Chicago that suggests that “Americans who are married with children are now leading happier and more prosperous lives, on average, than men and women who are single and childless.” And not just a little bit happier, either. According to Wilcox and Bass there is a “startling 30-percentage-point happiness divide between married and unmarried Americans.”
In other words, the happiness divide and the marriage divide are largely the same. Sam Peltzman, lead researcher behind the University of Chicago paper, isolated all other factors among thousands of respondents, including income, education, race, location, age, and gender. He concluded that “the most important differentiator” when it comes to who is happy and who is not is marriage. “Low happiness characterizes all types of non-married,” Peltzman writes, whether divorced, widowed, or never married. “No subsequent population categorization will yield so large a difference in happiness across so many people.”
In other words, the decline of marriage over the last several decades is causing the decline in happiness, or at least most of it. As Peltzman told The Atlantic in statistical hyperbole: “The only happy people for 50 years have been married people.”
Olga Khazan, who wrote the Atlantic piece and has been cohabiting with her partner for 15 years, says these stats also struck her as counterintuitive. However, she then admits that “this is a fairly consistent finding dating back decades in social-science research: Married people are happier. Period.”
Of course, happiness isn’t the sole or even the best reason to get married. Many things in life carry deep meaning and significance that don’t necessarily make us happy. A life lived only for happiness is a futile “chasing after the wind.” Enduring suffering, overcoming trials and tragedy, or sacrificing time, energy, or even our lives for others are all richly worthwhile pursuits that yield rewards in eternity. Certainly, loving someone and raising godly children is worth it, even if it’s not always fun.
And we should note, “happiness” is a malleable word. When survey participants say being married or having children made them “happy,” they may often mean that these permanent connections give them lasting joy, something more profound than fleeting happiness, which surveys seldom quantify.
Still, these consistently stark results are unmistakable. They should challenge the entire way of thinking in sitcoms, movies, and editorials. Marriage is one of the chief sources of wellbeing and satisfaction in life. The fact that marriage rates have declined so dramatically over the last 50 years has had real, population-wide consequences.
Because the reasons people are not marrying at the same rates are so complex, different solutions will be required to raise the marriage rate. According to Wilcox and Bass, one of the most important reasons is the fact that, for many Americans who are living together and may already have children, getting married incurs a tax “penalty.” The federal government needs to, in their words, stop “making marriage a bad financial bet for lower-income families.”
That would be a good start. Ultimately, however, our bad laws are reinforced by a low view of marriage that has infected hearts and minds via entertainment, media, culture, and individual choices. We have a worldview problem, which has led to a conflict between the values and priorities of millions of people and the way they were actually created to live.
Marriage is part of God’s plan for humanity and for His creation. No other human institution forges such lasting and consequential bonds. So, it should surprise no one—least of all Christians—that our nation’s 50–year experiment with alternatives to marriage has left huge numbers of people deeply unhappy. Thanks to social science, we know the solution. The question now, for each of us and for all of society, is whether we’re willing to commit.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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