For Better and for Worse

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“Reexamining Adaptation and the Set Point Model
of Happiness: Reactions to Changes in Marital Status” by Richard E.
Lucas, Andrew E. Clark, Yannis Georgellis, and Ed Diener, in
class="text68">Journal of Personality and Social Psychology class="text14"> (Mar. 2003), American Psychological
Association,
750 First St., N.E., Washington, D.C.
20002–4242.


In America’s continuing culture wars, even
happiness has become a political football. Defenders of the traditional
family have taken to making the case for marriage by arguing that married
people are healthier, wealthier, and, yes, happier than unmarried folks.
(Hold the Henny Youngman jokes!) And it turns out that researchers have
been beavering away for years trying to understand what makes people happy.


Research does show that married folks are happier than
others, but that may be because happier people are more likely to marry.
That recognition got scholars digging deeper. One leading school of thought
holds that life is really just one long “hedonic treadmill.” According to this view, the propensity toward happiness is pretty much
established by genetic predispositions and personality. A walk down the
aisle—or any other uplifting event—may lead some people to a
spell of bliss, but before long they’re their old selves again. In
other words, people have a happiness “set point.” (Actually,
researchers don’t often use the word
happiness class="text59">; they speak instead of “subjective well-being,” or SWB.)


It’s a good theory, but it misses a lot, contend
Lucas, a psychologist at Michigan State University, and his colleagues.
They analyzed data from a 15-year study of more than 24,000 individuals
living in Germany during the 1980s and 1990s. The subjects were regularly
asked to indicate how satisfied they were with their lives, using a scale
from 0 (totally unhappy) to 10 (totally happy),


For the 1,761 participants who married during the
study and stayed married, wedlock,
on average class="text59">, provided only a very small long-term boost, a tenth of a
point uptick on the authors’ 11-point scale. After an early lift, the
bloom came off the rose in about five years. That average result seems to
lend support to the treadmill theory, but, the authors say, it masks great
variations. Many people ended up much happier over the long run than they
were before they were married—and many ended up a lot less happy.


In general, say the authors, “people who were
less happy to begin with got a bigger boost from marriage,” and the
boost lasted.


On the other hand, the death of a spouse has a lasting
and marked effect. It took eight years, on average, for widows and widowers
who did not remarry to approximate the level of well-being they felt while
married.


The authors conclude that a sort of “hedonic
leveling” takes place with the married and widowed states. Those most
satisfied with their lives before marriage don’t get as much of a
lift from being married as the lonely and somewhat dissatisfied. And the
most satisfied husbands and wives lose the most when their spouses die. As
those widows and widowers know all too well, much more than just good genes
and an upbeat personality are needed for happiness.