Happiness is notoriously hard to quantify, but that hasn't stopped many people over the years from trying to answer this question: Are single women or married women more content?
And while the jury's still out, we do know more than ever about life on both sides of the coin.
It's clear that marriage doesn't have the chops it once did. According to the U.S. Census Bureau the percentage of married people is on a steady decline, from 72 percent in 1970 to just 48 percent this year. And perceptions of marriage have changed too. A CBC News poll found that 7 in 10 Americans said the institution of marriage is weaker now than 20 years ago.
We have good reason to think less of marriage now: Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers' seminal 2009 University of Pennsylvania study "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness" found that marital happiness has declined for both men and women over the last 35 years, and as psychologist Gregory M. Herek told WebMD, marital dissatisfaction not only affects spouses' emotional wellbeing but can also cause negative health effects. Reinforcing the case against marriage is the fact that U.S. divorce rates, though they have leveled in recent years, are still sky high.
In many ways, staying single makes sense, especially for women. Legally, women who choose to forgo marriage have all of the same rights married women do, aside from a few tax breaks, and personally, they're free of the stress and compromise marriage inevitably involves. Even reproduction, the fulfillment of that evolutionary imperative, can now be accomplished without a partner. And statistics show that a whole lot of women are taking the single route -- receiving higher education, entering the workplace and earning money without a fiance or spouse in sight.
Yet there are still compelling reasons for women to marry. Some research suggests that marriage can benefit your health. One CDC study found married people are less likely to smoke, drink heavily or suffer psychological troubles. (It's worth pointing out, however, that these health benefits are the product of relationships in general -- platonic or not.) Being an unattached single woman can mean you have more time with your friends -- which has health and happiness benefits too.
Unmarried women fare worse financially in retirement, and then there is the huge, white-veiled elephant in the room: the enormous lingering societal pressure on women to marry.
One recent study suggests that unmarried women are unhappy not because they are single but because society doesn't approve of their singleness.
The study, presented at the British Sociological Association annual conference in April, measured the happiness levels of 22,000 married and unmarried people from around the world. From the Telegraph:
Countries with a strong, traditional view of marriages, such as America, Bulgaria, Brazil and Mexico were places where the correlation between cohabiting [as opposed to marriage] and unhappiness was strongest … Controversially, they suggest that not being married leads to women being "pitied and looked down upon".
In the U.S., that traditional view of marriage, and the wedding industrial complex that profits off of it, now have a powerful marketing platform in every cable network targeting women (five words: "Say Yes To The Dress"). Women who call off their engagements speak to the enormous difficulty of waiting for a person you really want to spend your life with, and refusing to settle for an unsatisfactory relationship.
And then there is evidence that marital status doesn't impact happiness all that much. From WebMD:
One study tracking 1,000 couples for 15 years found that marriage brought only a "tiny blip" of happiness during the brief time closest to the wedding ceremony. "But on average, afterwards, people go back to way they were before. The researcher's perspective is that we each have a baseline of happiness, and marriage on average isn't going to change that -- except for that little blip," [psychologist Bella] DePaulo says.
What do you think?