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Sandra Bullock may not end up as unhappy as David Brooks thinks

In general, I agree with David Brooks’ basic premise in his column Tuesday in the New York Times (“The Sandra Bullock Trade”) that “worldly success has shallow roots while interpersonal bonds permeate through and through.”

Or, to put it more plainly (and using Brooks’ Sandra Bullock metaphor): Money and fame (winning an Oscar for best actress) don’t buy happiness. Supportive relationships (not having a philandering husband) do.

But I’m not sure Brooks is entirely correct about research proving that “marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being” or that “being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.”

I think the scientific literature on this is a bit more equivocal. Yes, research does seem to suggest that, on average, married people are happier than unmarried ones. But the difference actually isn’t that big, and, anyway, the studies have methodological limitations that may have skewed their results.

One big limitation (as researchers in this field point out themselves) is that most of the studies focus on a relatively short time frame — right before and after couples marry (and/or divorce). Thus, the studies could be overestimating the long-term effect of both events on psychological well-being.

Another limitation: The studies can’t control for all the possible differences in background characteristics between those who marry and those who don’t. It could be, for example, that happy people are just more likely to get married.

Nor have all the studies reported that marriage significantly increases happiness. For example, a 2003 study that followed 24,000 Germans for 15 years found that not only did walking down the aisle give most people only a small boost in their levels of happiness (about one tenth of one point on an 11-point scale), but the extra happiness was often short-lived.

“Even though most people consider marriage to be a positive event,” wrote the authors, “we found that there were as many people who ended up less happy than they started as there were people who ended up happier than they started (a fact that is particularly striking given that we restricted this sample to people who stayed married). This diversity of reactions probably reflects the fact that marriage can be pleasant and rewarding but has the potential to be very stressful.”

Interestingly, another study found that it was mostly previously depressed people who got any kind of significant psychological boost from marriage — even though the quality of their marriages was slightly worse than their peers who started marriage non-depressed.

“These findings,” wrote that study’s authors, “call into question the assumption that marriage is always a good choice for all individuals. What appear to be strong average benefits of marriage are actually highly dependent on a range of individual, interpersonal, and structural characteristics.”

So will marriage make you happy? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

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