Once women hit age 60, those who are married and those who have never been married are equally happy, new research finds.
In a survey of more than 51,000 adults in the United States, married people generally reported the highest happiness levels, and people who were widowed, divorced or never married reported lower happiness levels.
But the exception was older, never-married women.
"Married people are happier than others, but there are plenty of exceptions to that," said study co-researcher Gary Ralph Lee, a professor emeritus of sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
The survey didn't reveal why older women comprise one of these exceptions, but it could be that these women have found paths to happiness through their careers, friends or family, Lee said.
Marriage and happiness
Lee and his co-author, Krista Payne, a family and marriage research analyst at Bowling Green, did the investigation because although there are countless studies showing that married people are happier than nonmarried people, there is less research about the relative happiness levels of widowed and divorced adults, Lee said.
The researchers used data gathered over 38 years from the General Social Survey, an ongoing nationally representative survey conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago. Survey participants answered the question, "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?"
The researchers compared the reported happiness levels of different groups of men and women: married, unmarried, divorced and widowed people. Also, because widowed and divorced people are often older, on average, than married people, the researchers did a separate analysis for people age 60 and older.
Happy as a clam
The researchers were surprised to find that the reported happiness levels of "never-married, older women are, in a lot of years [of the survey], indistinguishable from [those of] married, older women," Lee said.
That trend didn't hold for older, never-married men, who reported less happiness than older, married men did, Lee noted.
"The never-married, older men are, in general, significantly less happy than the married men and generally not distinguishable from the divorced and widowed [men]," Lee said.
Furthermore, while widowed and divorced people tended to be less happy than married people were, widows and divorcees were at pretty much the same happiness levels as one another, Lee said.
"In some years, the divorced were a little better off than the widowed, and in other years that was reversed," Lee said. "The overall message is that being formerly married, whether it's [due to] divorce or widowhood, is associated with lower levels of happiness."
He added that it's not clear why married people tend to be happier. It could be that happy people get married or that marriage makes people happy, Lee said.
He presented the research at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting, which took place this year in Seattle in August. The study has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Original article on Live Science.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.