If happiness were a product on a shelf, found in aisle three between the fabric softener and laundry detergent, it’s safe to say that it would probably be sold out quite often. Of course, life isn’t that simple and happiness isn’t a commodity to be purchased. Happiness is a life-long pursuit for most of us, and the things we convince ourselves will make us happy usually fail to live up to those expectations.
However, if there’s one end goal that countless societies, religions, and romantic comedies tell us will undoubtedly result in happiness, it’s love. Indeed, finding that special someone, tying the knot, and settling down with one’s spouse has been prescribed as an integral ingredient to happiness for centuries.
With all of this in mind, a team of researchers at Michigan State University decided to investigate if love really is an essential ingredient to happiness. For their research, they compared self-reported feelings of happiness among married, divorced, and single study participants near the end of their lives.
Can someone who was never married feel truly happy and satisfied with their life? How about someone who was married at one time but then divorced? These are the types of questions they set out to answer.
All in all, their research suggests that a successful marriage is not necessary to achieve true happiness in this life.
“People often think that they need to be married to be happy, so we asked the questions, ‘Do people need to be in a relationship to be happy? Does living single your whole life translate to unhappiness? What about if you were married at some point but it didn’t work out?,'” says study co-author William Chopik, MSU assistant professor of psychology, in a university release. “Turns out, staking your happiness on being married isn’t a sure bet.”
A total of 7,532 people took part in this project, with each person being tracked between the ages of 18 and 60. Among that group, 79% were “consistently married” to the same person for most of their lives, 8% were consistently single, and 13% had “varied histories” (numerous relationships, divorce, death of a spouse, or remarried).
By the time each study participant reached the age of 60, they were asked by the study’s authors to rate their overall happiness with their life.
“We were surprised to find that lifelong singles and those who had varied relationship histories didn’t differ in how happy they were,” professor Purol comments. “This suggests that those who have ‘loved and lost’ are just as happy towards the end of life than those who ‘never loved at all.'”
Those who had stayed married to the same person for most of their life did report slightly higher overall happiness ratings. However, the difference was quite small. On a happiness scale of one to five, consistently married individuals generally gave themselves a rating of four. Meanwhile, consistently single people had an average score of 3.82, and those with a varied history came in at 3.7.
“When it comes to happiness, whether someone is in a relationship or not is rarely the whole story,” says study co-author Mariah Purol, an MSU psychology master’s student. “People can certainly be in unhappy relationships, and single people derive enjoyment from all sorts of other parts of their lives, like their friendships, hobbies and work. In retrospect, if the goal is to find happiness, it seems a little silly that people put so much stock in being partnered.”
It’s common for people to believe that happiness is a direct result of getting married and starting a family. This research, though, indicates that if a person is generally unhappy to begin with, getting married isn’t going to magically turn those mental rain clouds to sunshine.
“It seems like it may be less about the marriage and more about the mindset,” professor Purol concludes. “If you can find happiness and fulfillment as a single person, you’ll likely hold onto that happiness — whether there’s a ring on your finger or not.”
It’s important to remember that just because happiness isn’t dependent on love, that doesn’t mean entering into a loving relationship or marriage won’t lead to happiness. The key takeaway here is that happiness is readily attainable in the absence of love as well. There’s more than one way to attain happiness, and that’s something to smile about.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.