According to a new study, being married can have a lifelong positive effect on people’s well-being, including helping them weather the droop in life satisfaction that comes with middle age. Based on data from a pair of UK surveys, the study found that happiness was even higher among couples who saw their spouse as their best friend. Long-term monogamous couples who’d never gotten married saw similar benefits, and researchers suggest that the happiness of coupledom comes from its unique form of lifelong friendship.
Studies have already shown a link between marriage and happiness, with the married reporting significantly higher life satisfaction than those who are single, separated, divorced, or widowed. But that could simply mean that happier people are more likely to get married. People who marry tend to have more friends, have greater satisfaction with their careers, and be better educated—all of which could lead to greater happiness apart from marriage. As one study put it, “Does marriage make people happy, or do happy people get married?”
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Meanwhile, other research has suggested that while there’s an uptick in happiness at the beginning of a marriage, people report eventually returning to pre-marriage levels of self-satisfaction. That’d suggest that once the honeymoon’s over, people start to drift back into the same old dissatisfactions.
To clear up this picture, Shawn Grover and John Helliwell of the Vancouver School of Economics in Canada turned to the two aforementioned UK surveys. The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) collected information from about 30,000 people between 1991 and 2009, while the United Kingdom's Annual Population 2011 to 2013 Survey, had more than 328,000 participants. Using this combined dataset, researchers examined the relationship between marriage and friendship
They found that married people were generally more satisfied with their lives than their single peers, and that their happiness was more than just newlywed bliss. It went beyond the honeymoon phase, extending into old age.
“Even after years the married are still more satisfied,” Helliwell said in a statement. “This suggests a causal effect at all stages of the marriage, from pre-nuptial bliss to marriages of long-duration.”
In one comparison, they looked at the u-shape relationship between happiness and age: Younger people tend to be happiest, followed by a decline into middle age, and ending with another increase in happiness as people get older. Both married and unmarried people follow that pattern, but among the married the dip around middle age is less severe.
When happiness begins to decline, the researchers suggest, marriage partners offer unique support during life’s challenges. For partners who are also best friends, the benefits to well-being can be even greater. “The well-being benefits of marriage are much greater for those who also regard their spouse as their best friend,” Helliwell said. “These benefits are on average about twice as large for people whose spouse is also their best friend.”
Of course, those results are drawn from data gathered in the UK, and may not hold across every society. But they do suggest there’s something to be said for marrying your best friend—or simply coupling up with them for the long term.
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