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Marital Happiness, Marital Status, Health, and Longevity

Abstract

Married individuals are healthier and live longer than those who are never married, divorced, or widowed. But not all marriages are equal: unhappy marriages provide fewer benefits than happy ones. This study examined health and longevity across a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, combining measures of marital status and marital happiness to compare those who were “very happy” in marriage to those who were “pretty happy” in marriage, “not too happy” in marriage, never married, divorced or separated, or widowed. We employed the General Social Survey–National Death Index to illuminate the associations among marital status, marital happiness, general happiness, and self-rated health and mortality risk. Compared to individuals who were “very happily” married, those who were “not too happy” in marriage were over twice as likely to report worse health and almost 40% more likely to die over the follow-up period, net of socioeconomic, geographic, and religiosity factors. Those not too happy in marriage also had equal or worse health and mortality risk compared to those who were never married, divorced or separated, or widowed. Results further indicate that general happiness underlies much of the relationship between marital happiness and better health and longevity. The literature on the health and longevity benefits of marriage is well established, but our results suggest that individuals in unhappy marriages may be a vulnerable population. We conclude that subjective well-being and relationship quality contribute to the health benefits of marriage.

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Notes

  1. We also estimated models with all available years (1978–2002); findings were comparable to those shown here.

  2. We used this four-point scale because it is consistently available for all years analyzed here; the more conventional five-point scale was not administered until 2002.

  3. Models where each of these categories were disaggregated rather than merged yielded similar findings to those shown.

  4. Multicollinearity diagnostics indicated no problems, with variance inflation factors all below 3.5.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, and Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health, and NORC at the University of Chicago for collecting the data and making the linked files available to the research public. This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health under Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (F32 HD 085599) from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). We are grateful to the Carolina Population Center and the University of Colorado Population Center and their NICHD center grants (P2CHD050924 and P2CHD066613, respectively) for general research support. A previous version of this paper was presented at the Population Association of America annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois, April 27, 2017.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth M. Lawrence.

Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 5, 6 and 7.

Table 5 Coefficients for self-rated health OLS models, U.S. adults aged 18 and over (1988–2002)
Table 6 Proportional odds ratios for self-rated health ordinal logistic regression models, U.S. adults aged 18 and over (1988–2002)
Table 7 Hazard ratios for mortality risk, U.S. adults aged 18 and over (1988–2009)

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Lawrence, E.M., Rogers, R.G., Zajacova, A. et al. Marital Happiness, Marital Status, Health, and Longevity. J Happiness Stud 20, 1539–1561 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-0009-9

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Keywords

  • Marital status
  • Marital happiness
  • Self-rated health
  • Mortality
  • General happiness
  • General Social Survey
  • United States