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Who’s the happiest of all? Married BFFs

John Helliwell, the well-known University of British Columbia economist, is often accused of being an apologist for marriage. He denies it. He says he just analyzes the research. And most of the research (sorry, singles!) says that married people, over all, are happier than unmarried ones.

"We have found in Canadian, British and American data, when you include demographic variables like 'married,' marriage typically turns out to have a significant positive effect," he told me over the phone. Among other benefits, "marriage is good for people because it is a vehicle and a place where good friends are made and cherished."

But does marriage really make you happier in the long run? Or are happier people simply more likely to get married in the first place? Prof. Helliwell thinks he's found the answer. In a new research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, he and colleague Shawn Grover conclude not only that marriage does make people happier, but that being married to your best friend makes you extra happy. The same goes for people who live together. "Those who are best friends with their partners have the largest well-being benefits from marriage and cohabitation, even when controlling for premarital well-being levels," they write.

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Prof. Helliwell is an old hand in the field of "happiness studies," which attempt to measure the factors that influence people's sense of well-being. He has found that, overwhelmingly, it's the social context of life that determines whether people are happy.

Both marriage and friendship are known to improve well-being. So when he came across a comprehensive survey that included the question "Who is your best friend?", he knew he'd struck gold. "We were able to break down the marriage effect between people who had another best friend and the people whose best friend happened to be their spouse," he told me. What they found was that the happiness effect of being married to your best friend is twice as big.

In other words, a best friend who's always by your side is the best kind of friend of all. People who are married to their best friends don't need as many friends as other people to get the same benefit.

About half the married and cohabiting people surveyed named their spouse as their best friend. The happiness effect was stronger for women than for men, especially in middle age, when happiness typically dips for everyone. It seems marital friendship is a great buffer against the ravages of midlife. I think I have a clue why. The world may not think you're sexy any more – but he still does.

The very subject of marriage is highly charged these days. Conservatives say we should promote it because married people (and their kids) are better off. Liberals say the decline of marriage is a consequence, not a cause, of growing inequality. Singles say Prof. Helliwell and his ilk unfairly demonize them. But he denies having an agenda. And he says this study, in particular, is free of policy implications.

"Some people say this study means you should marry your best friend," he says. "But we don't say that. The lesson for those who are thinking of marriage is not to marry your best friend, but to make sure you treat your spouse as if he or she were." As for those irate singles, he says, "The major benefits of marriage can be achieved outside marriage. Single people shouldn't feel that marriage is either a threat or a requirement." They just need to make sure they have a bunch of great friends.

Interestingly, these findings on marital happiness are not global. In some regions (Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia), singles are actually happier than marrieds. But in this part of the world, we seem to have evolved a brand of marriage that works well for most people, most of the time. Many of us belong to that irritating tribe known as "smug marrieds" – people who have it good and know it.

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Mr. Helliwell, who's in his late 70s, makes no secret of the fact that his wife, Millie, also happens to be his best friend. Has that biased his research? "Absolutely not," he says. It has, however, made him blissfully happy.

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