The study of measures of well-being and happiness found that people who cohabit are next on the scale of happiness, followed by those in steady relationships and then those in casual relationships. Unpartnered people report the lowest levels of well-being.
The bottom line, say the researchers, is that having a romantic relationship makes both men and women happier -- and the stronger the relationship's commitment, the greater the happiness and sense of well-being of the partners.
"Some commitment appears to be good, but more commitment appears to be even better," said Claire Kamp Dush, a postdoctoral fellow with the Evolving Family Theme Project of the Institute for the Social Sciences at Cornell and first author of one of the few studies to examine well-being across the relationship continuum. The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (22:5, 2005). Interestingly, even those in relatively unhappy marriages appear to benefit from being married, Kamp Dush said, perhaps because they benefit from marriage's stability, commitment and social status.
"Even when controlling for relationship happiness, being married is associated with higher self-esteem, greater life satisfaction, greater happiness and less distress, whereas people who are not in stable romantic relationships tend to report lower self-esteem, less life satisfaction, less happiness and more distress," she explained.
"In general, people appear to feel better about themselves and their lives when they move into a more committed relationship," she added.
Analyzing whether happier individuals are more likely to enter into committed relationships or if committed relationships actually improve well-being, the researchers found that moving into committed relationships makes people happier.
"Those most likely to move into more committed relationships were actually those who reported lower levels of well-being when first surveyed," Kamp Dush said. "Therefore, if they were using committed relationships as a strategy to improve their well-being, it appeared to work."
Kamp Dush and co-author Paul Amato of Pennsylvania State University analyzed data from the study of Marital Instability Over the Life Course that included telephone interviews with 691 individuals in 1992 and 1997. Well-being was assessed with measures of self-esteem, life satisfaction, general happiness and distress symptoms.
Studying romantic relationships -- which range from casual dating to marriage -- is important, Kamp Dush noted, because such relationships have the potential to affect people's mental health, physical health, sexuality and financial status.
The study was supported, in part, by the National Institute on Aging and the Population Research Institute of Pennsylvania State University with core support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
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