A study from the University of Chicago has declared marriage as “the most important differentiator” for determining who is happy in America. The study, called the General Social Survey (GSS), surveyed thousands of respondents, asking, “Are] you …very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” The GSS found that married respondents had a thirty-point gap in their happiness compared to unmarried Americans, for both men and women. Researcher Sam Peltzman stated that marriage remains a solid indicator of happiness. While other factors such as income, race, and education do impact happiness, marriage remains the most consistent, asserted Peltzman. “Marital status is and has been a very important marker for happiness. The happiness landslide comes entirely from the marriage. Low happiness characterizes all types of non-married. No subsequent population categorization will yield so large a difference in happiness across so many people,” said Peltzman. While marriage remains the highest indicator of happiness overall, Americans’ happiness had declined since 1972, when the GSS began. Peltzman attributed this to the “recent decline in the married share of adults can explain (statistically) most of the recent decline in overall happiness.” The drop in happiness is especially pronounced in middle and lower-income individuals, who are getting married at decreasingly lower rates. 

The debate on marriage and happiness has been heightened by the declining value placed on marriage and the celebration of singleness and self-focused living that has become popular on social media platforms like TikTok. Julia Mazur recently went viral when conservative pundit Matt Walsh criticized her TikTok video celebrating a lazy Saturday as a 29-year-old woman without a husband or children. “Her life doesn’t revolve around her family and kids, so instead, it revolves around TV shows and pop stars. Worst of all, she’s too stupid to realize how depressing this is,” Walsh criticized. Despite most studies showing a link between marriage and happiness, whether marriage is a source of happiness or happy people are the ones who get married remains a topic of debate. In an article for The Atlantic discussing the GSS data, writer Olga Khazan described herself in the camp of “cynical libertines” who believe happy people are the ones who get married. Khazan pointed to a German study that showed people who married and stayed married were happier than those who remained unmarried, to begin with. Also, the study found that any additional happiness after the marriage was short-lived. 

Khazan went on to describe the camp of “romantics” “who believe that getting married makes you happy because there’s something special about marriage.” This camp believes that marriage increases happiness because it creates a supportive system that is more reliable than even the deepest friendships. While friendships can become very connected, things such as moving or changes in home situations can disrupt a friendship, whereas marriage partners tend to experience life together. Addressing the GSS data, the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) concluded that the data does not support friendships and “chosen family” as a substitute for marriage partners. “The GSS provides no support for this idea,” the IFS concluded. “When people reported increased frequency of ‘social evenings spent with friends,’ even large increases, there was essentially no associated change in happiness. This doesn’t mean that friendship is irrelevant for happiness, of course, especially since ‘social evenings spent with friends’ are a very crude measure of true friendship. But this does suggest that, at the high level, filling your life with game nights and, book clubs and outings with friends is unlikely to yield as much happiness as marriage. There simply is no substitute for marriage.”

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