Are single women actually happier? Study misinterprets data, researchers say

Marriage wedding ring couple Scott Webb via Unpslash CNA 5 20 15 Scott Webb via Unsplash.

Are childless, spouseless women actually happier than their married counterparts?

A widely-circulated finding from a study by a London professor suggests that while marriage increases the happiness of men, married women are actually more miserable than single women.

"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," Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, said at a presentation of his data analysis this weekend, reported on by The Guardian. The study is the basis of a new book by Dolan called Happily Ever After.

But other researchers have suggested that Dolan seems to be basing at least some of his conclusions on a misreading of data from the American Time Use Survey, which he analyzed for his study.

Particularly, Dolan seems to have misread a question that asks about whether a spouse is present or absent, W Brad Wilcox, a professor and family researcher with the Institute of Family Studies said on Twitter.

Dolan concludes that the question from the ATUS survey refers to whether a woman's spouse was in the room as she responded to the survey, Wilcox said, but the question seems to refer instead to whether a spouse was present or absent in the respondent's life.

"But Dolan appears to have misread ATUS survey questions regarding whether or not spouse was in the household to refer to whether or not the spouse was present for the interview--and thereby drew incorrect conclusions about marrieds' happiness, especially wives' happiness," Wilcox said on Twitter.

Gray Kimbrough, a researcher and adjunct professor with the American University's School of Public Affairs who tweeted that he "doesn't have a dog in the fight" in whether single women are happier or not, also said on Twitter that Dolan appears to have misanalyzed the question about a spouse's presence or absence.

"This claim, repeated breathlessly by many media outlets, appears to be based on a flawed analysis that actually compared slight differences in reported activity-level happiness for married people whose spouses live in the same household from those whose spouses live elsewhere," Kimbrough said.

The ATUS question on presence or absence of a spouse "isn't measuring a spouse's presence for the interview, or even for any activities--just presence *in the household*," Kimbrough added.

In other words, the decrease in happiness Dolan found appears to occur when spouses are absent in a married woman's life for various reasons, instead of married women admitting their misery only when their spouse leaves the room during a survey, both Wilcox and Kimbrough concluded.

Furthermore, Wilcox said, Dolan's findings do not align with other studies on marriage and happiness for women.

In data from the General Social Survey between 2010-2018, analyzed by Wilcox and researcher Nicholas Wolfinger, married women between the ages of 18 and 50 reported significantly higher rates of happiness than their divorced, separated, or single and never married counterparts.

According to GSS data, married women without children reported being "very happy" at a rate of 45%, while married women with children reported being "very happy" at a rate of 41%. Women separated or divorced without children reported "very happy" rates of 27%, while separated or divorced women with children reported "very happy" rates of 21%.

For single, never-married women, their reported rates of being "very happy" were at 24% for those without children, and 19% for those with children.

The pattern held when adults were questioned about rates of unhappiness, Wilcox and Wolfinger found.

Wolfinger noted that he was unable to reach Dolan for comment on an article he wrote about his data analysis, but Wolfinger said that "the story becomes clearer after looking at the ATUS questionnaire. First, it's important to note that general happiness is being measured, not happiness within one's marriage. The two are related to be sure, but far from perfectly. The GSS has separate measures of marital happiness and overall happiness, and the correlation coefficient between the two is .39."

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Secondly, he said, one ATUS question does ask about people present in the room during the survey, but respondents do not specify whether it was a spouse, child, parent, or cable repair guy, Wolfinger noted.

"Instead, respondents are asked this question: 'Were you interacting with anyone during this time, including over the phone? (Yes/No)."

"But let's put all these concerns aside and take Dolan's finding at face value. How can his finding be explained? Here's what he has to say about it on page 69 of his book: 'It appears that people are more likely to say they feel happy if their spouse can hear what they are saying. Or it could simply be that their spouses put them in a better mood, which influences how they recall their experiences yesterday. (My money is on the former.)'"

"I'd like to think he's wrong here," Wolfinger concluded, "and his data do little to convince me one way or another."

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