In July, Sam Peltzman, an economist at the University of Chicago, published a study showing a strong connection between marriage and happiness. “Being married,” Peltzman wrote, “is the most important differentiator with a 30-percentage point happy-unhappy gap over the unmarried. … No subsequent population categorization [black vs. white, young vs. old, rich vs. poor, etc] will yield so large a difference in happiness across so many people.”He goes on to agree, citing his happy marriage.
Many cultural commentators quickly picked up on this study and began urging Americans, especially young people, to focus more on finding a spouse than on finding a good career. In the New York Times, David Brooks wrote:My strong advice is to obsess less about your career and to think a lot more about marriage. Please respect the truism that if you have a great career and a crappy marriage you will be unhappy, but if you have a great marriage and a crappy career you will be happy.
This sounds very strong, but I am unconvinced. Here is the study summary:
Since 1972 the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked a representative sample of US adults “… [are] you …very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Overall, the population is reasonably happy even after a mild recent decline. I focus on differences along standard socio demographic dimensions: age, race, gender, education, marital status income and geography. I also explore political and social differences. Being married is the most important differentiator with a 30-percentage point happy-unhappy gap over the unmarried. Income is also important, but Easterlin’s (1974) paradox applies: the rich are much happier than the poor at any moment, but income growth doesn’t matter. Education and racial differences are also consequential, though the black-white gap has narrowed substantially. Geographic, gender and age differences have been relatively unimportant, though old-age unhappiness may be emerging. Conservatives are distinctly happier than liberals as are people who trust others or the Federal government. All above differences survive control for other differences.It claims to control for differences, but of course there was no control group.
If marriage is correlated with happiness, then the obvious explanations are that marriage causes happiness, or that happiness causes marriage. The paper admits:
The usual caveats about causal inference should be kept in mind All of them – mutual and reverse causality, omitted variables, selection, etc. – apply to most every comparison you will see. For example, married people are happier than unmarried. Is that because marriage produces happiness or because unhappy people tend to be difficult to live with or because they sort out of the marriage market and on and on or all of the above? I leave such questions to others but show that the marriage gap is large enough to merit asking them.So the study does not substantiate David Brooks' advice. Likewise, are the rich happier because they have more money, or did their happy outlook help them get rich?
Brooks is known for being very sloppy in citing social science data. Some consider him a charlatan.
There are also studies saying that married folks are healthier, longer-lived, richer, better-looking, etc. My guess is that the healthy happy rich people have a much better supply of mates to choose from, and hence more likely to get married.