Does marriage make people happier, or are happier people more likely to marry? Social scientists have long debated the question. A recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research lends credence to the former scenario, and says that those who call their spouse their best friend are the happiest of all.
Authors John Helliwell, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and Shawn Grover, a policy analyst at Canada’s Department of Finance, analyzed data from two United Kingdom-wide surveys and the Gallup World Poll.
After controlling for pre-marriage happiness levels, they found that the happiness benefits of marriage are long-term, contradicting theories that people return to a set-point level of happiness after the first few years.
In fact, the benefits of marriage seem to be greatest around midlife. For both the married and unmarried, life satisfaction typically follows a U-shaped curve, with the lowest point occurring around one’s late 40s, when pressures at work and at home are often at their peak. Yet the dip for married people is far less steep, the authors found, suggesting that support from a spouse serves as a buffer against some of the stress.
Not surprisingly, the closer the friendship between spouses, the more satisfaction they get from being married. People who consider their spouse to be their best friend report almost twice as much additional life satisfaction from being married. This may hint at changing expectations of marriage: As a utilitarian model of marriage where one partner works and the other cares for the children has become less relevant in many households, the authors write. But the role of friendship has remained important.
The findings don’t necessarily mean that people should marry their best friend, Helliwell says. Rather, it means you treat your spouse as a best friend. “This may involve a rethinking away from some of the more mechanical splits of duty and placing more of an emphasis on the sharing and closeness that make for a good friendship,” he says.
There are takeaways for unmarried people, too. For one: Marriage isn’t a requirement for achieving a happiness boost. In the analysis, people who were unmarried but living together got nearly the same level of benefit that marrieds did.
The findings also point to the importance of friendship. While spouses can act as a sort of “superfriend” equivalent to having several friends, single people benefit from having large circles of friends and seeing them often, Helliwell says. A study he coauthored in 2013 found that doubling one’s number of friends has an effect on well-being equal to a 50 percent increase in income — showing that investing in
relationships can pay big dividends.