A surprise for all you happily married couples: apparently, you're actually miserable.
This, at least, according to the mainstream press, which has spent the past several days breathlessly parroting the words of Paul Dolan, head of the Psychological and Behavioral Science Department at the London School of Economics. Dolan made an appearance Saturday at the Hay Festival, where he discussed his new book on happiness research, Happy Ever After.
According to Dolan, the Guardian first reported, the best way to be happy—especially if you are a woman—is to remain single and childless throughout life.
"Married people are happier than other population subgroups, but only when their spouse is in the room when they're asked how happy they are. When the spouse is not present: fucking miserable," Dolan said.
He further claimed that in general, marriage is a benefit to men's happiness, but not women's. According to the Guardian, Dolan thinks that it is only stigma that keeps women from living marriage-less, childless, and therefore happier lives.
Dolan's claims received widespread, fawning coverage. The Guardian‘s original reporting was picked up and repeated by Harper's, Huffington Post, and British site the Independent, among many others. Relationship commentator Vicki Larson celebrated Dolan's finding as putting to rest the "fairy-tale" narrative of marriage.
"There are many ways to live a happy life, and not all roads lead to marriage and children. Science backs that up," wrote a reporter for women's site Refinery29.
Here's the problem: science actually does no such thing.
What makes Dolan's finding so surprising is that marriage is pretty well-established as an indicator of happiness. The reasons why are pretty intuitive: humans like deep interpersonal connections; men especially enjoy a boost to wages from marriage; being married is basically the best way to get stable access to sex. How much of this is caused by marriage (as opposed to being a selection effect of who chooses to marry) is a subject of much debate, but the fact remains that married people are on average happier.
We can establish this just by looking at simple survey data. For example, here is self-reported happiness of married and single respondents to the General Social Survey, a semi-annual survey of Americans conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Male or female, childless or not, married people appear to be substantially more likely to call themselves "very happy" than singles.
Dolan's research is based on the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), a survey administered annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that tracks how a representative cohort of Americans spends their day. Maybe ATUS captures something the GSS doesn't?
Sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger asked this question in a post for the Institute for Family Studies, and "reverse engineered" Dolan's findings, using marital status listed in the ATUS and a survey question which asked if "anyone was in the room" at the time the survey was administered. He found extremely small differences in reported happiness, but could not suss out how, exactly, Dolan reached the conclusion that married people with no one in the room were "fucking miserable."
This is where things get extremely silly. Gray Kimbrough is a professional economist, as well as adjunct faculty at American University. He's also deeply experienced with the American Time Use Survey, research on which was the subject of his dissertation. And, as he wrote in a Tuesday tweet thread, something about Dolan's conclusion smelled wrong to him.
Dolan expands on this argument in his book, Happy Ever After. The book also provides a few figures like this one. But notice: those six categories line up perfectly with values of the "marital status" variable, having nothing to do with who is present for the ATUS interview. pic.twitter.com/2k8GPmgS0f
— Gray 'serial millennial myth debunker' Kimbrough (@graykimbrough) May 28, 2019
Wolfinger, it turns out, was probably being much too charitable. To assess if a person's spouse was "absent" or "present" at the time of their ATUS interview, Dolan relied upon the two options available for a married person's marital status in ATUS data: "Married, spouse present" and "Married, spouse absent." But these distinctions refer to whether or not a spouse is currently resident with the respondent—an absent spouse might be serving overseas, e.g.—rather than if the spouse is present at the time of the interview.
In fact, As Kimbrough pointed out, ATUS respondents are not even asked about their marital status during their interview; that information is collected several months earlier, during a different but connected survey. In other words, it is impossible for Dolan to know how ATUS respondents would act with their spouse in the room, because the ATUS does not measure that: the people who are "fucking miserable" are those whose spouses are not even living with them.
If all this data wrangling seems a little confusing, put it this way: if Kimbrough is right, Dolan made a profound and incredibly basic error, akin to Clintonista Naomi Wolf's viral research error earlier this week. Dolan's counter-intuitive claims about married people being miserable are counter-intuitive because they are false. (I reached out to Dolan to ask him to respond to Kimbrough's analysis and/or retract his claim; he hasn't responded.)
Now, if all that had happened was that an academic made an error interpreting data, that would be interesting to a small subset of nerds, but not worth the attention of the world at large. What matters more than the fine details of data, however, is what stories the media chooses to tell with it. The whole debacle seems proof against Dolan's claim that living single and childless is stigmatized; to the contrary, when he produced deeply tenuous evidence that doing so made people happier, the media jumped all over it.
America's family life is deeply dysfunctional. Fertility is at a record low, young people are increasingly celibate, people are getting married later and later and less and less, and all of it is combining to make people miserable.
Yet for some reason the media would prefer to tell us that childless, single women are happier, or that leaving the office to spend time with your kids could seriously harm your career. Maybe commentators are just trying to make the best of a bad situation. But maybe their choice to push this paradigm—that marriage makes you miserable, and personal commitments lead to a bad life rather than the good life—are in no small part to blame for the sad situation we find ourselves in.
UPDATE May 31, 2019: The Guardian has struck the offending paragraph from its report on Dolan. In reply to my inquiry, Dolan writes,
My research assistant is away for a few days but I think Gray is right about this and we have misinterpreted the variable – some surveys do code whether people are present for the interview but in this instance it refers to present in the household.
I have contacted the Guardian who have amended the piece and my editor so that we can make the requisite changes to the book.
The substance of my argument that marriage is generally better for men than for women remains.