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Middle age is slightly less terrible when you’re married

The Brookings Institution

Researchers have shown that over the course of a lifetime, happiness generally follows a U-shaped curve: Happiness is high when you're young, dips in middle age, and rises again going into your golden years. This makes some intuitive sense: Middle age tends to be a time when obligations to career and family are at their highest. The stress of juggling childrearing and long hours at the office can take a toll on one's sense of well-being.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some way to mitigate that dip in middle-age happiness, flatten out that U a bit? Turns out, there is: You can get married.

In a new working paper, Canadian economists Shawn Grover and John Helliwell show the effect of marriage on a lifetime of happiness. They find that married people are generally happier, and that the "happiness bonus" from marriage is strongest right in middle age -- when you need it the most.

"One hypothesis that could explain why the U-shape in life satisfaction over age is deeper for the unmarried than the married is that the social support provided by a spouse helps ease the stresses of middle age," they write.

This "social support," as it turns out, is one of the lynchpins of marital happiness. It's not simply enough to be married -- it has to be a good marriage. The study finds that the happiness benefits of marriage are strongest among spouses who consider each other their best friends, and that this "best friend effect" is substantial. "The well-being benefits of marriage are on average about twice as large for those (about half of the sample) whose spouse is also their best friend," the authors conclude.

The paper also finds good evidence to support the notion that the effect of marriage on well-being is causal. After controlling for individuals' self-reported happiness before getting married, the authors found that those who get married end up happier than those who stay single.

The institution of marriage has taken a central role in the national debate over poverty and inequality. On any number of social, educational and economic indicators, children of married parents fare better than kids of unmarried ones.

But as this study shows, the benefits of marriage accrue to the individual spouses, as well, and at the most fundamental level of daily well-being, happiness and life satisfaction.