Wait. Marriage Makes You Miserable?

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The German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP) is a longitudinal study that's been tracking 12,000 households and 20,000 individuals since 1984. Each year, the members complete in-depth surveys tracking all sorts of data. Some of these gauge life satisfaction and keep the researchers up-to-date on major life changes. From this bounty of information, researchers have produced a number of intriguing findings, including the chart below:

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What the graph shows is an increase in relative life satisfaction in the years before and leading up to marriage, but a marked decrease in the years following. Marriage, it would seem, is making people miserable.

shutterstock_106580456.jpgBut that, of course, is not necessarily true. If marriage really were so unpleasant, then far fewer people would be doing it. Instead, what the table more likely displays is the near futility of measuring life satisfaction with any sort of accuracy.

Let's look at the table a different way. Instead of interpreting a causal effect (which is incorrect), the graph may be more indicative of a decision-making heuristic at work. In other words, people are subconsciously taking a mental shortcut to assess overall life satisfaction, basing their opinion on easily retrievable information.

As explained by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, "...the score that you quickly assign to your life is determined by a small sample of highly available ideas, not by carefully weighting the domains of your life."

For example, in an amusing experiment conducted in 1983, a team led by noted psychologist Norbert Schwarz asked subjects to rate their overall life satisfaction on both sunny and rainy days. Those interviewed on a bright, sunny day reported being more satisfied with their lives in general compared with those interviewed on an overcast, rainy day.

In another, more sly experiment, Schwarz's team set up a situation whereby half of the subjects would -- by apparent luck -- discover a dime on a photocopy machine before being interviewed. Though the good fortune was meager by most standards, the respondents who stumbled upon it reported significantly higher life satisfaction than those who did not.

These studies corroborate Kahneman's analysis: that people are fickle with their assessments of life satisfaction, basing such evaluations upon their current mood state. With this in mind, let's return to the marriage graph.  

"People who recently married, or are expecting to marry in the near future, are likely to retrieve that fact when asked a general question about their life," Kahneman states. Since marriage -- by and large -- is viewed as a great boon, they will probably deem their lives more satisfying.

So, concludes Kahneman, "Figure 16 can be read as a graph of the likelihood that people will think of their recent or forthcoming marriage when asked about their life."

Hurray! Marriage is vindicated of causing abject misery!  

Primary Source: Daniel Kahneman (25 October 2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4299-6935-2.

(Images: 1. GSOEP via Kahneman 2. Marriage Is Game Over via Shutterstock)
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