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Friday, May 24, 2024

Opinion | ‘Marriage Predicts Happiness Better than Education, Work and Money’

BusinessOpinion | ‘Marriage Predicts Happiness Better than Education, Work and Money’

With little notice, the United States may be crossing a historic milestone in family structure, one that may shape our health, wealth and happiness.

Historically, most American adults were married — more than two-thirds as recently as 1970. But the married share has crept downward, and today only about half of adults are married. Depending on the data source, we may already have entered an epoch in which a majority are not married.

“Our civilization is in the midst of an epochal shift, a shift away from marriage,” Brad Wilcox, a sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, writes in his new book, “Get Married.” “In place of marriage, many Americans are remaining single or simply living together without wedding rings. And to be clear, it’s more of the former than the latter.”

Wilcox believes that perhaps a third of today’s young Americans will never marry. As a long-married romantic myself, I find that troubling, but it’s not just soggy sentimentality. Survey data indicates that married couples on average report more happiness, build more wealth, live longer and raise more successful children than single parents or cohabiting couples, though there are plenty of exceptions.

“Fixing what ails America starts with renewing marriage and family life, especially in poor and working-class communities where the fabric of family life is weakest,” Wilcox argues.

He’s up against a counter view that one should dodge family responsibilities, relish freedom and play hard. Many boys and men flock to the online rantings of Andrew Tate, the misogynistic influencer facing human trafficking charges, who has argued, “There is zero advantage to marriage in the Western world for a man.”

Some women have likewise celebrated freeing themselves from an institution that often shackled them to cooking, laundry and second-class status at a cost to their careers. As women have enjoyed more economic opportunities, they’re less often forced to marry some oaf who gets violent after a few drinks — and, anyway, what self-respecting woman with independent means would want to marry, say, a fan of Andrew Tate?

Yet even as marriage has receded, the evidence has grown that while it isn’t for everyone, in many cases it can improve our lives more than we may appreciate.

“Marriage predicts happiness better than education, work and money,” Wilcox writes. For example, survey data indicates that getting a college degree increases the odds of describing oneself as “very happy” by 64 percent. Earning a solid income lifts the odds by 88 percent. Being “very satisfied” with one’s job raises them by 145 percent. And marriage increases the odds of being very happy by 151 percent — while a “very happy” marriage boosts the odds by 545 percent.

I’ve long been interested in family structure for two reasons. First, I believe the left made a historic mistake by demonizing the Moynihan Report, which 59 years ago this month warned about the consequences of family breakdown. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was prescient, for we now know that households headed by single mothers are five times as likely to live in poverty as those with married couples.

Second, loneliness and social isolation are growing problems. One poignant example: Perhaps 100,000 or more dead bodies in America go unclaimed each year, often because there are no loved ones to say farewell. It’s a topic explored in another recent book, “The Unclaimed,” by sociologists Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans.

Marriage doesn’t solve loneliness and social isolation, but it helps. And there is good news on the family front: The divorce rate has dropped to a 50-year low, and the share of children raised in an intact family with married parents has increased slightly in recent years. Today about 51 percent of American kids reach adulthood with the same two parents they started out with.

But it’s also true that the marriage rate has collapsed, particularly for working-class Americans. Of those without a high school diploma, more than two-thirds are unmarried.

Wilcox writes that “the American heart is closing,” but I wouldn’t put it that way. I think many Americans want to marry but don’t feel sufficiently financially stable, or they can’t find the right person.

I’m staggered by the interest in virtual boyfriends and virtual girlfriends. One virtual boyfriend app offers an assortment of possibilities such as “polite and intelligent Edward” or “romantic and cute Daniel.”

“Don’t be shy, he’ll definitely like you,” the app advises. “He knows how to cheer you up, so you won’t feel sad or lonely.”

Just reading that makes me achingly sad. Virtual mates feel like an elegy for civilization.

One reason for the decline in marriage in working-class communities may be a lack of economic opportunity, particularly for men, and another may be culture and changing norms. That’s worth pondering. In polls, majorities of college-educated liberals seem diffident about marriage, unwilling to criticize infidelity and disagreeing with the idea that children do better with two married parents. Perhaps this liberal lack of enthusiasm for marriage also accounts for the marriage penalties built into benefit programs like Medicaid, in turn disincentivizing marriage for low-income Americans.

Wilcox scolds elites for clinging to traditional values themselves — in the sense that they get married and have kids for the most part — even as they are reluctant to endorse marriage for fear of seeming judgmental or intolerant. Elites “talk left but walk right,” he says.

We are social animals, Aristotle noted more than two millenniums ago, and it’s still true. Spouses can be exasperating (as my wife can attest), but they also can cuddle, fill us with love and connect us to a purpose beyond ourselves. They are infinitely better, for us and for society, than virtual lovers on an app, and that seems worth celebrating openly.

Update: I have the final figures for my 2023 holiday giving guide, so I owe readers a follow-up and a “thank you.” More than 5,400 readers contributed a total of $7.2 million to the three nonprofits I recommended, and here’s what the donations will mean in practical terms: 12,150 girls in rural Africa will be supported for a year of high school through Camfed; 1,645 young people in the United States will be supported for a year of instruction and mentoring to succeed in college or technical school through OneGoal; and 4,218 low-income Americans will get free training in information technology through Per Scholas so that they can start better-paying careers in the tech world. All three organizations do excellent work. In addition, 671 readers volunteered to help refugees settle in the United States through my recommended volunteer opportunity, Welcome.US. Thanks so much to all who donated and volunteered: People are benefiting here and abroad from your generosity.

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