Indicators from the Office for National Statistics show that People who identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) tend to rate their quality of life as lower than the UK average. Here, economists Shuai Chen and Jan C. van Ours* share the key findings from their research into same-sex relationships and wellbeing.

What the data tells us about partnerships

The positive association between marriage and happiness is well-established in research (in the Origins of Happiness, for example, and here). Married people are happier than unmarried. This does not necessarily mean people are happier because they are married. It could be that people who are happier in the first place are more likely to marry.

What’s more, it is possible that the positive association between marriage and happiness is due to having a partner and not necessarily being married. After all, a marriage is just one type of partnership. Another issue is whether the positive association between marriage and happiness is exclusively for opposite-sex couples or whether it also holds for same-sex partnerships.

Is it different for same-sex couples?

We analysed data on partnership dynamics and happiness in the Netherlands where, as in many other countries, cohabitation has become more popular at the expense of marriage. Our indicator of happiness is based on the question “On the whole, how happy would you say you are?” The answer is provided on an ordinal scale from zero to ten (from totally unhappy to totally happy). The table gives an overview of average happiness distinguished by marital status and sexual orientation. The ranking is clear. Married people are happiest, non-partnered are unhappiest while cohabiting individuals are in between.  

Table: Average Happiness by Marital Status and Sexual Orientation
Marital statusOpposite sexSame sex
No partner6.987.65
Marriage7.767.83
Cohabitation7.587.68

Happiness scale 0-10; 21,720 observations

The numbers in the table are averages and differences by type of partnership or sexual preferences may be due to differences in demographic and socioeconomic variables such as age, education, presence of children, labour market position and so on. Once we take these into account the difference between opposite-sex and same-sex individuals disappears. The differences according to marital status remain.

Happier people more likely to form partnerships

Self-reported happiness scores are about 0.50 higher for partnered individuals than it for singles. If we look at changes at the level of the individual we can determine the true effect. On average, at partnership formation, happiness increases by about 0.25. The difference between the two numbers (0.5 and .25) tells us that happier individuals are more likely to form partnerships. And, beyond that, there is still a positive effect of partnership formation on happiness. In addition, marriages make individuals happier than cohabitation. Finally, we find that the positive effect on happiness is identical for same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

Meaning of relationships may change with age

For younger and older individuals, marital partnership may have a different meaning. For instance, among young people, cohabitation is usually seen as a trial marriage; while older individuals may think of cohabitation as a long-term substitute for marriage. We find that older people obtain larger happiness gains from marriage than from cohabitation. For the younger cohort there is no difference in happiness benefits from marriage or from cohabitation.

*Shuai Chen is a PhD candidate at CentER, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. Jan C. van Ours is Professor of Applied Economics, Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus University, The Netherlands