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Home > Research Articles > Does a Ring Bring Happiness, or Vice Versa?

The Washington Post

Monday, April 21, 2003

The Washington Post - April 21, 2003

Does your date/partner/spouse make you miserable? Meet Richard E. Lucas.

The Michigan psychologist has come up with strong evidence that happiness in relationships and marriage has less to do with your partner and more to do with yourself.

Contrary to Hollywood fantasy, promises in the personals, and research indicating that married people are happier, Lucas and a group of fellow researchers have found that the level of happiness or unhappiness that people in relationships report is . . . drum roll . . . no different than what they reported before the relationship began.

"It will hopefully give people a realistic perspective on what to expect from marriage," said Lucas, a professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "There might be lots of benefits, but your happiness level is not going to change."

The research, based on a 15-year study of more than 24,000 people in Germany, addresses one of the most intriguing debates about happiness in relationships. Multiple studies have found that couples -- gay and heterosexual, married and unmarried -- tend to report being happier than singles.

The question researchers have struggled with is, do relationships make people happier, or are happier people more likely to form relationships?

Lucas's study concludes that people have a happiness "set point" to which they return after marriage and other life events. The study is part of a broad inquiry into psychological adaptation, the notion that people "are doomed to experience stable levels of well-being because, over time, they adapt to even the most extreme positive and negative life circumstances."

Studies have shown, for example, that people who win large amounts of money through the lottery get a temporary boost in happiness from winning, but the emotional high quickly subsides to pre-winning levels.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that people who face tragedy -- such as a devastating spinal cord injury -- also adapt. One study of such disabled people found that while negative emotions overwhelmed them immediately after the misfortune, patients' feelings were more positive than negative eight weeks later.

David Lykken, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, conducted a study comparing the happiness of middle-aged twins. Though siblings experienced very different life circumstances, genetically identical pairs had similar levels of happiness. Lykken's conclusion: "Happiness varies around a genetically determined set point."

Still, adaptation studies have been difficult to conduct on questions of romance and happiness, because they run into chicken-and-egg questions. By examining long-term happiness levels in a large group of people before they got married, after marriage, and if they divorced, Lucas and a team of other researchers were able to tease apart the happiness mystery.

When people are asked to rate how happy they are on a scale of zero to 10, most score between 5.5 to 8, Lucas said. People who eventually got married scored, on average, a quarter-point higher on this scale before marriage.

During the year before marriage -- presumably a period of courtship and falling in love -- these people's happiness rose by another fifth of a point. Immediately after marriage, they got a boost of yet another fifth of a point.

Given that most people rate their happiness within a 2.5-point range, a total difference of two-thirds of a point is considerable, said Lucas. But two years after marriage, he found that the married people's happiness levels had dropped back down to a quarter point higher than average -- exactly what they were before marriage.

But when Lucas analyzed the data more closely, he found there were some interesting differences.

"Some people's happiness levels do [permanently] change quite a bit after they get married," he said in an interview, "but on average people return to where they were. There are many people who experience really big changes in their satisfaction, but they are balanced out by the people who get negative consequences."

While Lucas could not say why some people end up happier in the long run, he said, "If you got a big boost in the three years after marriage, you are likely to get a boost in the years afterwards. The three years after marriage are going to predict how happy you are in the three, four, five years after that."

While the study examined heterosexual marriage and happiness, Lucas said his "intuition is these processes apply to lots of other relationships," including gay and cohabiting couples.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in March, drew praise from both advocates of traditional marriage and those supporting alternatives.

Dorian Solot, co-author of a book called "Unmarried to Each Other," pointed to the study's conclusion that people make their own happiness. "Anyone who's sitting around waiting for a wedding ring to make them happy is going to have a long wait," she said.

Solot is executive director of the nonprofit Alternatives to Marriage Project, an advocacy group for unmarried people. "This study is a reminder about the importance of finding your own happiness and not relying on your marriage to do that for you," she added.

Linda Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist whose work has found that married people tend to have better physical and emotional health, live longer and have more satisfying sex lives, said the conclusion that happiness and marriage were independent meant that people who divorced to get out of an unsatisfying relationship may not end up happier either.

Unhappily married people who got divorced did not turn out to be happier than unhappily married people who stayed together, she said, referring to other studies.

People's level of happiness may be largely inborn, but many psychologists also say there are conscious techniques that people can use to raise their level of happiness. People who make a point of expressing gratitude for their blessings, for example, have been shown to feel better than those who make a practice of being irritable.

"Entertainment and sex are fine, but the dependable satisfactions come from constructive activities, ranging from cleaning up the yard in the spring, which is what we're doing now, to writing a paper or helping someone in some significant way," said Lykken, a professor emeritus of psychology.

Lykken also had a warning: Fearfulness and irritability are among the "thieves of happiness."

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