Who’s happy in marriage? (Not just rich, White, religious men, but kind of)

I previously said there was a “bonafide trend back toward happiness” within marriage, for the years 2006 to 2012. This was based on the General Social Survey trend going back 1973, with married people responding to the question, “Taking all things together, how would you describe your marriage?”

Since then, the bonafide trend has lost its pop. Here’s my updated figure:


I repeated this analysis controlling for age, race/ethnicity, and education, and year specified in quadratic form. This shows happiness falling to a trough at 2004 and then starting to trend back. But given the last two points, confidence in that rebound is weak. Still a solid majority are happy with their marriages.

Who’s happy?

But who are those happy in marriage people? Combining the last three surveys, 2012, 2014, and 2016, this is what we get (effect of age and non-effect of education not shown). Note the y-axis starts at 50%.


So to be happy in marriage, my expert opinion is you should become male and White, see yourself as upper class, go to church all the time, and have extreme political views. And if you’re not all those things, don’t let the marriage promoters tell you what your marriage is going to be like.

Note: I previously analyzed the political views thing before, so this is an update to that. On trends and determinants of social class identification, see this post.)

Here’s my Stata code, written to run on the full GSS through 2016 data. Play along at home!

set maxvar 10000
use "GSS7216_R1a.dta", clear
gen since73 = year-1973
gen rwgt = round(wtssall)
keep if year >1972
gen verhap=0
replace verhap=1 if hapmar==1
logit verhap i.sex c.age##c.age i.degree i.race c.since73##c.since73 [weight=rwgt]
margins, at(since73=(0(1)43))
recode attend (1/3=1) (4/6=2) (7/8=3), gen(attendcat)
logit verhap i.sex c.age##c.age i.degree i.race i.class i.attendcat i.polviews if year>2010 [weight=rwgt]
margins sex race class attendcat polviews if year>2010


Survey says: U.S. marriages are getting happier

I go to update an old trend with the 2012 General Social Survey data, and a sleepy little slope suddenly pops. First it was a rise in people identifying as “lower class.” Now it’s marital happiness.

You might have predicted that marriages would be growing happier after the 1970s, since divorce allows the unhappily-married to drop out of the sample. But the trend until recently had been boring — a slight drop in happiness in the 1970s and 1980s, and flat since. But now we’ve got a bonafide trend back toward happiness from 2006 to 2012 (individual data points with five-year moving averages):


To test the curves, I did a simple set of logistic regressions with year and year-squared, controlling for sex (women are less happy with their marriages; sex interactions were not significant). The curves for “very happy” and “pretty happy” are highly significant — meaning the U-shapes you see are highly unlikely to be due to chance; “not too happy” tests flat:

Logistic regression coefficients for marital happiness states, 1973-2012
Very happy Pretty happy Not too happy
Intercept .684 -.861 -3.188
Years since 1973 -.024 .026 -.013
Years^2 .0005 -.0005 .0002
Male .149 -.095 -.502
All coefficients significant at p<.001 except time trends for “Not too happy” (p>.20). N = 27,207.

I have no explanation for this, and no position to argue. I just thought you should know. To keep it in perspective, it’s a modest change, and the majority were already “very happy.”

Children beget happiness, eventually

Hang in there, parents.

Why do people have children? The more appropriate question, probably, is why they don’t — since most people throughout history have had children whether they had a reason to or not. But, true to the modern practice of justifying one’s major family decisions with a social science survey, potential parents might now like to consult a recent article by Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskyla (and reported in the NY Times) entitled, “A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility.”

Using data from the World Values Survey — more than 200,000 people in 86 countries interviewed over 25 years — they show that having more children generally makes people less happy. But children do make parents happier — only after about age 40. Here’s the pattern:

Above age 40, people with 1-to-3 children are the happiest. The question was, “taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, somewhat happy, or not at all happy?” In the analysis, they control for sex, socioeconomic status, income, marital status, the year of the survey and the country (to avoid cultural tendencies to interpret the question differently). In the end, the authors believe the happiness effect results mostly from the support provided by children to their parents. They conclude:

…the association between happiness and fertility evolves from negative to neutral to positive above age 40, and is strongest among those who are likely to benefit most from support from children in their later years. This age gradient is evident for both sexes, at all income levels, for those in good and bad health, for those who are in partnerships and those who are not, for all welfare regimes, at all levels of fertility, and for our period of study from 1981 to 2005. In addition, analyses by welfare regime show that the negative fertility/happiness link at young adult ages is weakest in countries with high public support for families, and that the positive association at ages above 40 is strongest in countries where old-age support depends mostly on the family. These results suggest that children are a long-term investment in well-being, and they highlight the importance of both the life-cycle stage and macro contexts to the happiness/fertility association.

So, I guess the implication is that if we improve social means of support so that old people don’t need children to take care of them, children will provide less boost to happiness. But aren’t family relationships built on love and voluntary choices supposed to be more happiness-producing than those squeezed out of economic and social necessity?