Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang document the impact of marriage on happiness.

Social media and mainstream media are replete with stories suggesting marriage and parenthood are not fulfilling, especially for women. Not surprisingly, many Americans now believe the key to being happy is a good education, work, and freedom from the encumbrances of family life—not getting married and having a family. These cultural developments raise an important question answered by this Institute for Family Studies research brief: Are single, childless women and men truly the happiest, or are women and men today who are married with children happier?

The 2022 edition of the General Social Survey (GSS)—the nation’s preeminent social barometer—reveals that marriage and family are strongly associated with happiness. The GSS shows that a combination of marriage and parenthood is linked to the biggest happiness dividends for women. Among married women with children between the ages of 18 and 55, 40% reported they are “very happy,” compared to 25% of married childless women, and just 22% of unmarried childless women. 

Nevertheless, it is important to note that unmarried mothers are the least likely to be very happy: with just 17% of them indicating they are very happy. These results parallel findings from 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic that we reported last year in The Atlantic. In earlier surveys, we found that women who were married with children were generally the happiest and the least lonely.

But what about men? Is the link between happiness, marriage, and parenthood similar for men? Indeed, the 2022 General Social Survey indicates that marriage is also linked to greater happiness for men ages 18-55. And here again, married fathers are happiest. 

Specifically, 35% of married men ages 18-55 who have children report being “very happy,” followed by 30% of married men who do not have children. By contrast unmarried childless men, and especially unmarried fathers are the least happy—with less than 15% of these men saying they are “very happy.”