Last month, behavioural scientist Paul Dolan from the London School of Economics claimed that unmarried women were notably happier than married women, suggesting that, if women wanted to live the most fulfilled life, they should stay both single and childless.
We may have suspected it already, but now the science backs it up: unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population. And they are more likely to live longer than their married and child-rearing peers, according to a leading expert in happiness.
Speaking at the Hay festival on Saturday, Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, said the latest evidence showed that the traditional markers used to measure success did not correlate with happiness – particularly marriage and raising children.
“We do have some good longitudinal data following the same people over time, but I am going to do a massive disservice to that science and just say: if you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother.”
Dolan was promoting his book, Happy Ever After, in which he uses statistics from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS)—which raises an immediate question of whether the survey data was intended to be used in this way. It is also worth asking whether ‘being happy’ is the primary reason to make decisions about the direction of our lives. Guardian columnist Susanne Moore asks in response:
I am not saying marriage does not make some very happy, but happiness, as any Buddhist, or anyone who has glimpsed a few inspirational quotes on Instagram, knows, is a byproduct – not a goal.
Many things may make you inadvertently happy – just as many people feel that what they were promised by the culture would make them happy doesn’t. “The one” can never live up to expectations. And being single and child-free may be fabulous or not. But then, who trusts self-reported happiness?
We live in an age where, if ‘science’ tells you something it is true, then it must be gospel (ironically!), so it is always worth asking what the ‘science’ really is saying. That is why Tim Harford’s programme ‘More or Less’ on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service (available as a podcast) is just about my favourite thing. It turns out that almost nothing that is cited as ‘science’ and supported by ‘statistics’ actually is, since most people are very poor at interpreting data—including Paul Dolan.
As it happened, Harford was doing a seminar at the same Hay Festival as Dolan (and it is well worth listening to!), so I suspect he was particularly motivated to interrogate Dolan’s use of data from the next door venue. Harford picks up on one particular claim by Dolan, that married women say that they are happy—but only when their spouses are in the room. When their spouses are ‘absent’, then it turns out that married women are (in Dolan’s words) ‘f***ing miserable’. This claim rang alarms bells with other statisticians who make use of the same data set—and it turns out that Dolan has misunderstood one of the terms used by ATUS: ‘spouse absent’ does not mean that the spouse isn’t present when the survey was conducted, but that the spouse is living away long-term because, for example, of being posted abroad on military service, or having a job in another state. Lesson number one here: understand the terminology of the material you are using. If you are not sure that is important, just ask Naomi Wolf, who based a central argument of her book about the treatment of those committing homosexual acts in the Victorian period on a complete misunderstanding of the legal term ‘death recorded’ (unfortunately she only found out live on air when being interviewed by a historian about the book).
In fact, it turns out that Dolan’s claims are not supported by the actual data he used. Even assuming ‘reported happiness’ is a valid yardstick, it turns out that, though the data is not very conclusive, both married men and married women report slightly highly levels of happiness in the survey than those who have either never married or are no longer married. So the facts simply do not support the conclusion that Dolan claims from them. It is worth pointing that out, since Dolan’s claims have been very widely reported—just do a search for ‘unmarried women happier’ and you will see how far that has reached.
In his usual thorough way, Harford does not leave it there, but looks more broadly. He interviews economist Betsey Stevenson, who has done her own research on the issues around women, marriage, and the question of subjective well-being as indicated by self-reported ‘happiness’.
The claim that women who marry are less happy than women who stay single flies in the face of every other data set that I have looked at, which tend to show that married women are happier. There is a long literature that shows that women with children are less happy than people without children…
I spent a long time looking at this research before I had my own children, and what I learnt once I had children is that children brought a joy into my life that I had never had before—but they also bring a lot of anxiety, I worry a lot about them, so am I overall more happy every day? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that there is more meaning in my life. So should we use this evidence from a happiness survey to give people life advice? I think we should be really, really careful about that.
Harford goes on to qualify any conclusions from such surveys, since you cannot do randomised trials allocating people to marriage or singleness and measuring the results—’though what a randomised trial that would be!’ he quips. He also notes the age-old truism about statistics: correlation is not causation, and even if there are some correlations between marital state and levels of happiness, that in itself explains nothing. Finally, he actually challenges Dolan in person about the error on ‘spouse absent’ and his misuse of the data. On the first, Dolan agrees to edit the Guardian article, and promises that something will be done about the claim in the book, but he refuses to concede his misuse of the data more broadly. After Dolan blusters but fails to respond to the point, Harford concludes sanguinely:
The interview went on for a long time, and I will spare you. I never did manage to get Dolan to produce any evidence to support his claim—in fact, he argued that the data was not really good enough to claim that anyone was happier being married or unmarried, childless or surrounded by ankle-biters. But it seems he was making some pretty bold claims before the More or Less team parked their tanks on his lawn. You be the judge…
It rather looks as though, as often happens, someone is making an ideologically driven claim and then making selective (or even fanciful) use of statistics to support their position.
Bringing a slightly different angle to questions about marriage and sex is Mark Regnerus, an sociologist in the US. Regnerus reflects on the historical social contract that has been in operation between men and women in relation to marriage. Noting the steep decline in marriage in America, Regnerus considers possible explanations:
Many economists and sociologists argue that this flight from marriage is about men’s low wages. If they were higher, the argument goes, young men would have the confidence to marry. But recent research doesn’t support this view. A May 2017 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, focusing on regions enriched by the fracking boom, found that increased wages in those places did nothing to boost marriage rates.
Another hypothesis blames the decline of marriage on men’s fear of commitment. Maybe they just perceive marriage as a bad deal. But most men, including cads such as Kevin, still expect to marry. They eventually want to fall in love and have children, when their independence becomes less valuable to them. They are waiting longer, however, which is why the median age at marriage for American men has risen steadily and is now approaching 30.My own research points to a more straightforward and primal explanation for the slowed pace toward marriage: For American men, sex has become rather cheap. As compared to the past, many women today expect little in return for sex, in terms of time, attention, commitment or fidelity. Men, in turn, do not feel compelled to supply these goods as they once did. It is the new sexual norm for Americans, men and women alike, of every age.
What is interesting here is noting the asymmetry between men and women in their attitudes and expectations of marriage and sex, something that in fact Paul Dolan had also noted. These changes in the context and understanding of sex have wide ramifications, and although in part driven by feminist concerns about liberating women from the perceived restrictions of marriage, most of the changes appear to have been to women’s disadvantage and men’s advantage. The summary of his book on the same subject argues:
Sex is cheap. Coupled sexual activity has become more widely available than ever. Cheap sex has been made possible by two technologies that have little to do with each other―the wide uptake of the Pill and high-quality pornography―and its distribution made more efficient by a third, the uptake of online dating. Together, they drive down the cost of real sex, have created a massive slow-down in the development of significant relationships, put women’s fertility at risk, and have even taken a toll on men’s marriageability. What the West has witnessed of late is not the social construction of sexuality or marriage or family forms toward different possibilities as a product of political will, but technology-driven social change. This revolution in sexual autonomy also ushered in an era of plastic sexuality and prompted the flourishing on non-heterosexual identities.
And it concludes by noting:
Sex and its satisfactions are becoming increasingly important in contemporary life. No longer playing a supporting role in enduring relationships, sex has emerged as a central priority in relationship development and continuation. But unravel the layers, and it is obvious that the emergence of “industrial sex” is far more a reflection of men’s interests than women’s.
All of this made me very glad to stumble across another book which appear to have a different focus, but is actually engaging with a closely related cluster of issues: 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men. I wonder if the title might be discouraging to some, and this is perhaps why it has been independently published by the Engage Network rather than by a regular publisher. But don’t let that put you off; the insights it offers are hinted at in the subtitle: ‘How to lead a gender balanced church supporting healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth’ and this range of interests is illustrated by the diagram on the right from the Engage home page.
The book probably demands either an article to itself—or perhaps a series of articles—but the introduction by Annabel Clarke articulates a highly relevant and integrated vision:
The Bible values singleness and marriage. Single people are equally valuable and competent as married people. At the same time, God’s design from the start has been for marriage to reflect his covenant relationship with the church, to be foundational to society, and to be personal experienced by most people.
The book covers a wide range of issues. There is a good theological reflection from Adrian Chatfield on the issues around singleness, marriage and relationships (though I would always caution against ever drawing on the Trinity to discuss human community!); explorations of men’s ministry and singleness, the latter from the excellent Kate Wharton; and overviews of a wide range of related issues. I was particularly impressed with the reflections on why churches attract more men than women, and what might be done about that. There is a discussion about the generational impact if gender imbalance in the church, though I wondered if more could be said about the relationship between marriage, families and ‘biological growth’ in mission, which has been of importance historically.
Contrary to what some conservatives claim, marriage is not the gospel. But it is something to which the gospel speaks powerfully for the sake of human well-being and the flourishing of society. There is much to do—and much we can offer—in helping our culture to recover a positive and healthy view of the married life.
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