“Women are happier without children or a spouse, says happiness expert.”
The Guardian, May 25, 2019
In his recent book, Happily Ever After, Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, concludes that single and childless women are happier than married women or those who are married with children. Naturally his conclusion has caused a stir, as it upends society’s enduring myth that women find their primary satisfaction from marriage and raising children.
Dolan’s research cites evidence from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) showing that the traditional measures of success (marriage and children) do not necessarily correlate with happiness. The survey compared levels of pleasure and misery in unmarried, married, divorced, separated and widowed individuals.
While single people foster social connections that bring them fulfilment, married people often become more socially isolated and spend a significant amount of time in less deliberately chosen social networks, like a spouse’s family, colleagues or friends. This could be one reason for decreased levels of reported happiness among marrieds.
According to Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkeley, being married can enhance happiness because it offers a readily accessible, culturally endorsed construct for social connection. But one can gain similar benefits from other kinds of relationships with friends and other relatives.
Another study, from Professor Elyakim Kislev at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, analyzed data from approximately 300,000 people in the European Social Survey. Kislev found that single people who spent time with family, friends and colleagues were likely to feel positively about themselves. He explains that while married people are celebrated for having found “the one”, single people have a variety of people who matter to them, contributing to their optimism and sense of wellbeing.
Perhaps age and time of life also play a role in the happiness derived from marriage? Using data from the United Kingdom’s Annual Population Survey, researchers at the Vancouver School of Economics at UBC found that married people have less of a U-shape, or mid-life dip, in life satisfaction than unmarried people. They also explored the role of friendship in happiness and found that the positive wellbeing effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend.
According to Stumbling on Happiness author and Harvard psychology researcher Daniel Gilbert, the single best predictor of human happiness is the quality of social relationships. As a result, people in happy marriages are happier than unmarried people. His research also confirms that people without children are happier than people with children and people with young children are the least happy of all.
Finally, moving on from emotional health to physical health, recent research by Dr. Randa Kutob at the University of Arizona, examined the physical health of 79,000 post-menopausal American women between the ages of 50 and 79. Over 3 years, measurements were taken of their blood pressure, waist circumference, and BMI (body mass index).
With just one exception, (diastolic blood pressure), health metrics favoured single and divorced women. For those women who went from single to married status over the course of the study, their BMI (body mass index) increased, they drank more, and their systolic blood pressure increased from previous levels. And, when married women subsequently divorced or separated during the research period, their BMI (body mass index) and waist size decreased, they ate more healthfully and increased their levels of physical activity. This study challenges the conventional wisdom that divorce later in life has a negative effect on women’s health. In fact, at least in the short-term, women get a health boost from being single.
The overwhelming conclusion is that social connectedness is a key determinant of happiness. If you are fortunate enough to have your significant other also be a good friend, you can expect to reap extra happiness and improved health. However, regardless of your relationship status, investing in your friendships and maintaining an active social life is a key ingredient to life satisfaction.