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Archive for January 11th, 2008

On average, most people do not experience long-term changes in satisfaction following marriage.

That surprising conclusion was reached by researchers studying marital status and life satisfaction in a longitudinal sample of more than 1,500 people back in 2003. The researchers looked at how baseline levels of happiness change or don’t change based on dramatic life events, such as marriage, divorce or the death of a spouse.

For example, researchers say the study suggests that people who get married and stay married are more satisfied than average long before the marriage occurs. One possible reason — a person who is very satisfied with life prior to marriage probably already has a rich social network and thus has less to gain from the companionship of marriage. Thus, while marriage is a positive occurrence for those people, it’s not life changing. Conversely, a person who is lonely or less happy before marriage has much more to gain.

The results of this study tweak the notion that we all fall back into a “baseline” of happiness after a significant event occurs. The reality is more nuanced. Some people do resort back to previous levels of happiness after the initial phase of their marriage. In other words, they “settle in.” But others don’t. In fact, they report far lower levels of happiness after marriage than they experienced before marriage. One way researchers explain these differences is that while marriage can be very rewarding, it can also be very stressful to people and that stress may cause long-term damage to one’s overall satisfaction system.

To sum up — while marriage can be a life-changing experience (and not always for the better), it’s impact on our long-term happiness appears smaller than we realize, especially if we were pretty satisfied prior to going into it. That’s not to suggest marriage is a waste of time or not valuable. On the contrary. It’s a major satisfaction resource. But perhaps it means expectation levels should be tempered prior to this important event.

Source: Re-examining adaptation and the setpoint model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status. Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003).  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 527-539.

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