Does marriage make people happier, or do happier people get married?

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When the Honeymoon Ends

A study of 24,000 German couples demonstrated the existence of the honeymoon phase that newlyweds experience. Tracking the couples' happiness levels over 15 years, a psychology professor from Michigan State University found that spouses exhibited an uptick in happiness soon after marriage [source: Stein, Song and Coady]. Then, those happiness levels gradually returned to their premarital state.

This pattern is comparable to the effects of sudden financial improvement on people's happiness. For people living with relatively low incomes, money can buy happiness for a while. Yet the longer someone gets used to having more cash on hand, the more it loses its luster.

This doesn't negate the survey results that show higher happiness rates among married people. Rather, it has led some psychologists to conjecture that married people are merely more inclined toward happiness since they're happier to begin with. Humans are predisposed to certain happiness ranges depending on their genetics, personality and life circumstances. Also, happier people are generally more social, and it follows that people who actively socialize will be more likely to meet someone they'd like to marry.

As with other major life events, people are inclined to return to their innate happiness baselines as time goes on. The study of German couples found that this holds true even with the death of a spouse. Yet the same psychologist who conducted the initial research concluded that bouncing back to that baseline may be harder following divorce. The participants who went through divorce had a slightly lower level of life satisfaction [source: Grohl].

Expectations for marital bliss can also play an important role in determining happiness. A study from the University of Florida highlighted a relationship between the skills that people bring to a marriage and people's anticipation for how much marriage will improve their lives. If partners have overly high expectations for marriage transforming their lives into in a joyous wonderland, they need to have the relationship skills to match [source: McNulty and Karney]. Otherwise, it's like going to a spelling bee expecting first place without ever cracking a dictionary.

As we've learned from happiness surveys, wedding bells can portend happy futures. But happily ever after requires more than an "I do." Marriage won't magically create happiness, which makes personal character development during the single years even more important.