Happily Ever After? Cohabitation,...
Happily Ever After? Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Happiness in Germany Anke C. Zimmermann and Richard A. Easterlin* University of Southern California Published in: Population and Development Review. 32(3), pp. 511-528, September 2006 Abstract In Germany the life satisfaction of those in first marriages traces the following average course. Starting from a baseline of life satisfaction in noncohabiting years one or more years prior to marriage, those who cohabit prior to marriage have an increase in life satisfaction significantly above the baseline. In the year of marriage and that immediately following, the life satisfaction of those in first marriages, prior cohabitors and noncohabitors combined, increases to a value even further above the baseline, significantly higher than for premarital cohabitors. Thereafter, life satisfaction of those in first marriages drops, but remains significantly above the baseline, at the same level as for premarital cohabitors. Compared with the population generally, those in first marriages are selective with regard to a number of socioeconomic characteristics, but not in regard to personality traits. Those whose first marriage ends in separation or divorce have a life satisfaction trajectory in the years before and during marriage not significantly different from that described above, but separation or divorce reduces this group���s life satisfaction to the original baseline value. This group differs significantly from the first marriage population as a whole in its selectivity ��� lower socioeconomic status and personality traits less conducive to marriage. The roots of prospective dissolution thus apparently lie in this group���s distinctive socioeconomic and personality traits, and not in a disparate course of life satisfaction in the first years of marriage. *We are grateful to the University of Southern California for financial support, and to Jeffrey B. Nugent, Vincent Plagnol, Merril Silverstein, John Strauss for comments.
Introduction There is a comfortable consensus in the social sciences that marriage has a positive and enduring effect on well-being (for references in sociology and demography, see Waite 1995 Waite and Lehrer 2003 in economics, Frey and Stutzer 2002 Layard 2005). A jarring challenge to this consensus, however, was recently proposed in an award- winning article in a leading psychological journal (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener 2003). In a German panel study covering 15 years they find that there is a temporary positive ���honeymoon period��� effect of marriage, but typically people revert two years after marriage to the same ���baseline��� level of life satisfaction that prevailed two years before. The psychologists��� conclusion is that, ���on average, people adapt quickly and completely to marriage��� (p. 536). ���Adaptation��� here means, not that one adjusts to difficulties encountered in living with a partner, but that the hedonic gains from forming a union are transient and quickly disappear. The significance of this conclusion goes beyond the issue of whether marriage has lasting benefits. The ���setpoint theory��� in psychology sees individuals as adapting fully to all kinds of life circumstances - job promotion, serious accident, death of a partner, and so on (Kammann 1983 Lykken and Tellegen 1996 Myers 1992, 2000). Lucas and colleagues are testing the setpoint model. In this theory a person���s subjective well- being tends to center around a setpoint determined by genetics and personality, and major life transitions and events merely deflect a person temporarily from this level. David G. Myers (2000: 60), a proponent of setpoint theory, quotes favorably the view expressed by the late Richard Kammann (1983:18): ���Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in a theory of happiness.��� When Lucas and colleagues state that ���people adapt quickly and completely to marriage���, they mean that the partners in a marital union fairly quickly return to the happiness level dictated by their personality traits and genetic heritage. (In what follows, subjective well-being, life satisfaction, and happiness, though not identical, are treated as reasonably interchangeable terms.) 2
A disturbing implication of the setpoint model is that little can be done by personal action or public policy to improve individual well-being. Ed Diener and Richard E. Lucas, two of the authors of the panel study, are quite explicit about this. In an earlier article they state: ���The influence of genetics and personality suggests a limit on the degree to which policy can increase SWB [subjective well-being].. . . Changes in the environment, although important for short-term well-being, lose salience over time through processes of adaptation, and have small effects on long-term SWB��� (Diener and Lucas 1999: 227)1. Clearly if, in the population as a whole, adaptation to life circumstances is typically rapid and complete, then any measure taken to improve average well-being is fruitless (cf. Easterlin 2003). In this article, we analyze the same data set as used in the 2003 study by Lucas and colleagues (the German Socio-Economic Panel), but cover 21 waves (1984-2004) compared with their 15 waves (1984-1998).2 Our sample is of first marriages among previously unmarried persons who married during the survey period and for whom data are available for at least two years before marriage (to establish the premarriage baseline of life satisfaction) and two years after marriage (to test whether there is a return to baseline satisfaction after the���honeymoon period���). Our sample includes marriages that remain intact during the sample period as well as those that dissolve after two or more years. (Very few marriages dissolve within the first two years.) One might suppose that broken marriages would be characterized by a baseline-to- postmarriage trajectory that is significantly different from that of intact marriages, and that a study confined to ���successful��� marriages ��� those still intact at the last 1A gradual retreat by these authors from the view expressed in this 1999 quotation is apparent in later work. In the 2003 article cited here, Lucas and colleagues find that adaptation to widowhood takes eight years. Elsewhere, they conclude that unemployment has a lasting effect on well-being, altering the happiness setpoint (Lucas et al. 2004). Lucas (2005) finds that divorce too reduces life satisfaction, a result seemingly at odds with the finding on marriage (Lucas et al. 2003), which Lucas continues to defend (Lucas and Clark 2006). A proposal by Diener and Seligman (2004) for governmental measurement of subjective well-being suggests numerous ways in which socioeconomic policy might improve well-being. 2The data used here were made available to us by the German Socioeconomic Panel Study at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Berlin. 3