When my fiancé and I got engaged last December, I could feel my daily happiness level rise. For weeks after I said yes, I felt like I was hopscotching on clouds, and the feeling has pretty much endured. These past few months, I believe I have reached peak happiness.
As someone who reports on the science of love, this joyful reaction has fascinated me—mostly because nothing about my relationship has changed. My fiancé and I are still the same people we were pre-engagement, except now we get congratulated a lot, we get to plan a big party, and everyone we meet is super happy for us, making us happy in return.
We are not unique. Research has shown many couples experience a happiness spike around their engagement. In the year leading up to a wedding, most see an overall increase in life satisfaction, which continues through the Big Day and into the first year of marriage.
On average, however, this boost is limited—after "I do," happiness levels start to decline back to pre-marriage levels, sometimes dropping below those of individuals who have never married. (One recent study found 10% to 14% of couples were actually unhappier after two-and-a-half years of marriage than before tying the knot.) But some lucky lovebirds don't experience this drop after the first year of marriage. Instead, their life satisfaction level stays high, and their marriages tend to last. As an about-to-be-married person, I am very interested in who wins the marriage lottery—and why?
Lucky for me, a new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences attempts to answer this question. In the study, researchers from Britain's University of Stirling and University of Manchester looked at correlations between the personality traits and happiness levels of participants both before and after marriage, over the course of eight years.
To study these potential correlations, the researchers examined data from 2,015 individuals, collected as part of the German Socio-Economic Panel study—a large, longitudinal study of German households. Every year, from 2005 to 2012, researchers recorded participants' marital status, life satisfaction levels, and personality traits using the Big Five scale that separates people's personalities by agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. Over the course of eight years, 468 of the participants got married for the first time and remained married until the end of the study. These participants' responses were included in the study.
Since the success of a marriage relies on so many factors, the researchers controlled for education level, age, presence of children, and satisfaction with family life during the course of the study.
So let's get to the good part! The researchers found that, on average, women who married during the study started out a bit happier with life than the women who never married at all. This finding echoes previous research suggesting that happier people in general are more likely to tie the knot. It could also reflect the post-engagement boost I mentioned earlier.
In the study, the women's life satisfaction then increased in the year leading up to marriage—and slowly declined as the married years went on. The researchers saw a similar trend with the men, except their life satisfaction levels declined more quickly after marriage than the women's levels. 😱
Here's the bright side—not everyone saw the same rate of decline. When the researchers dug into the data, they noticed a correlation between specific personality traits and happiness levels after marriage. When it came to women, female participants who scored high on the conscientiousness scale (meaning: they consider themselves more thorough, careful, and vigilant in life) or low on the extraversion scale (meaning: they consider themselves introverted) were more likely to "sustain" the life satisfaction benefits following marriage.
On the flip side, "Women who scored themselves as moderately low on conscientiousness quickly experienced falls in life satisfaction," the authors write. "After some years the life satisfaction levels of those moderately low in conscientious are similar to those that remained single throughout the study." Womp womp.
For men, the researchers also saw a correlation between personality and happiness after marriage—but it differed from what they saw in women. In the male participants' case, extraverted participants kept the happiness boost.
"Whilst all men experience a pre-marital increase in their life satisfaction, men that are extraverted seem to experience longer-term benefits to their life satisfaction during marriage. Introverted men, however, experience significant drops in their life satisfaction that result in them being approximately 0.20 SD lower in life satisfaction than those who never marry," write the researchers.
Why the differences? The researchers hypothesize that conscientious women may prioritize the success of their relationships more and thus enjoy the benefits of marriage more.
"Such a result might be explained by the tendency for conscientious individuals to place more value on relationship goals and therefore conscientious individuals may strive harder to ensure success," they write in the study. However, being higher on the conscientiousness scale didn't play a role in men's happiness; the researchers weren't sure why.
As for their findings involving introversion and extraversion—the researchers pointed out that extraversion in general has been shown to enhance relationships, which explains why extraverted men may experience sustained happiness levels. But this doesn't explain why introverted women would experience higher happiness levels after marriage, too.
So what should we make of all this? In the end, it's unclear why certain personality traits might benefit women in marriage but not men, and vice versa. Maybe the correlation has something to do with the participants' choice of partners—maybe conscientious and introverted women are more likely to marry compatible parters. Maybe their personality types do better with any partner. The researchers couldn't draw any conclusions, based on the data available, but they did point out that a partner's personality undoubtedly plays a role in marital satisfaction.
The researchers were confident, however, that an individual's personality is clearly correlated with marital success later on, with certain traits seemingly leading to better odds than others. This is because, the researchers hypothesize, the happiness boost that follows engagement and marriage is actually more of an indirect effect than a direct effect.
"[Life] satisfaction may increase following marriage not due to the direct effect of marriage per se but via the indirect effect marriage has in protecting an individual when they encounter life stressors," the authors write in the study. "Personality may both increase the likelihood of other life stressors occurring during marriage and/or moderate the impact of such life stressors."
While the findings are thought-provoking, they—like most qualitative studies about love and marriage—should be taken with a grain of salt. As the researchers themselves acknowledge, this study was "an attempt to establish initial research in this area," but that further analysis into the causal affects between marital happiness and personality is needed.
That said, please excuse me while I go complete several personality tests.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.