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Researching happiness effects of same-sex and different-sex partnerships


New research uses panel data from the Netherlands to explore whether there is a causal effect of partnership on subjective well-being. The results suggest that both different-sex and same-sex marital partnership improves well-being, and the benefits of marriage appear to outweigh those of cohabitation.

Due to the heterogeneity of partnership formation and stability, the effect of marital partnership on well-being may differ between same-sex and different-sex couples. The issues of the well-being and marital partnership of same-sex couples are largely unexplored in the literature.

Researcher Shuai Chen of the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER)’s recent book chapter1 entitled “Happiness and Partnerships” was co-authored with the renowned Dutch economist Jan C. van Ours of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Tinbergen Institute.  Published in March 2021 in the “Handbook of Labor, Human Resources and Population Economics”, the authors first begin discussing theoretical foundations for partnership formations focusing on marriage between a man and a women and also describing cohabitation and same-sex partnerships.

Second, the authors present an overview of empirical studies on happiness and partnerships exploring methodological issues and highlighting main findings:


Partnership formation

Partnership formation seems to increase happiness with same-sex partnerships being no different than different-sex partnerships.



Marriage generates more happiness than cohabitation; and reverse causality does not seem to be important.

Partnered individuals generally happier than singles

Partnered individuals are generally happier than singles. The positive association between partnership and happiness has multiple explanations. A simple comparison of singles and partnered individuals is insufficient to establish the origin of the positive association.

It is possible that some individual characteristics affect both the probability to be partnered and happiness in the same direction. It is also possible that happier people are more likely to find a partner. Thus, they are not simply happier because they are in a partnership but because they were already happier before they found a partner. Moreover, there could be a causal effect of partnership formation on happiness. Finally, it is possible that a shock to one’s happiness changes the likelihood of partnership formation of that individual. This is reverse causality from the perspective of the link from partnership to happiness.

Positive effect on subjective well-being is statistically identical for same-sex and different-sex couples

To account for time-invariant unobserved personal characteristics influencing subjective well-being, we use a linear fixed effects model to investigate the effects of partnership. The authors also control for covariates that may be correlated to both partnership and well-being such as drinking and smoking behaviour and body mass index, as well as demographic and socioeconomic variables.

If individual fixed effects are ignored, happiness is about 0.50 higher (on our scale of 0 to 10) for partnered individuals than it is for singles. Clearly, happier individuals are more likely to form partnerships, but there is still a significant positive effect of partnership formation on well-being.

The authors also find that the positive effect on subjective well-being is statistically identical for same-sex and different-sex couples.

Shuai Shen and Jan C. van Ours investigate whether partnership dynamics cause changes in the subjective well-being of the individuals involved. They also study potential differences of the subjective well-being effects between same-sex and different-sex couples. To establish a causal effect from partnership dynamics to well-being, the authors account for selectivity which occurs if happier people are more likely to form partnerships.

Causal effect from partnership formation to subjective well-being

The authors find that there is a causal effect from partnership formation to subjective well-being but there is also a selection effect, each of which explains around 50% of the positive association between partnership dynamics and subjective well-being.

The causal effect on well-being is the same for different-sex and same-sex couples. Furthermore, Shuai and Jan discover positive well-being effects of cohabitation although these effects are smaller than those of marriage.

Partnership formation and dissolution are likely to exert different influences on couple’s subjective well-being. The authors investigate such symmetries and indeed find opposite effects with similar magnitudes on subjective well-being during these two periods.

Finally, Shuai and Jan analyse whether the well-being effect of marital partnership is cohort-specific and detect a difference between birth cohorts. Cohabitation only benefits younger cohorts but not older cohorts.

Meet the researchers

Shuai Chen

Research Associate in Economics, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER), Luxembourg

Jan C. van Ours

Professor of Applied Economics, Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Professorial Fellow at the Department of Economics, University of Melbourne; CEPR Research Fellow

The authors’ research is based on data from the Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social Sciences (LISS) panel administered by CentERdata. The panel is a random sample of households drawn from the Dutch population consisting of more than 6,500 households and over 10,000 individuals.

Cite this paper: Chen, S., & van Ours, J. C. (2021). Happiness and Partnerships. In K. Zimmermann (Ed.), Handbook of Labor, Human Resources and Population Economics Springer.


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