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Changing Gender Roles and Attitudes to Family Formation in Ireland$

Margret Fine-Davis

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780719096969

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719096969.001.0001

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The effect of family status on well-being

The effect of family status on well-being

Chapter:
(p.161) 10 The effect of family status on well-being
Source:
Changing Gender Roles and Attitudes to Family Formation in Ireland
Author(s):

Margret Fine-Davis

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719096969.003.0010

Abstract and Keywords

While much research has documented the major demographic changes which have been taking place in our society and in societies around us, little research has examined the effects of these changes on people’s well-being. A major focus of the present study was to examine the effects of 1) family status, i.e., being single, married or cohabiting, and 2) having children, on people’s well-being. Well-being is a broad and multi-faceted construct and therefore we included a number of measures of well-being in order to optimise reliability and validity. These included a multi-item measure of social integration vs. social isolation, measures of loneliness, positive life experiences, self-assessed physical and mental health, life satisfaction, and perceived standard of living, etc. Chapter 10 shows how married, cohabiting and single people differ on these measures of well-being. Gender differences are explored, as well as socio-economic status and other demographic variables. The results are compared to previous results obtained in Ireland and internationally.

Keywords:   Well-being, Social integration vs social isolation, Loneliness, Life satisfaction, Effects of family status on well-being, Physical health, Mental health

While much research has documented the major demographic changes that have been taking place in our society and in societies around us, little research has examined the effects of these changes on people’s well-being. A major focus of the present study was to examine the effect of family status, i.e. being single, married or cohabiting, on people’s well-being. In addition, we examined the effect of having or not having children on people’s well-being. The study included a wide range of measures of well-being, many from previous research. While much previous research has documented the positive effects on well-being of marriage (e.g., Gove 1973; Verbrugge 1979; Gove et al. 1983; Coombs 1991; Stack and Eshleman 1998; McKeown et al. 2003), more recent research has revisited the potential differences between marriage and cohabitation in relation to their effects on well-being. Musick and Bumpass (2006) concluded that the differences between cohabitation and marriage tend to decrease over time and are not as important as the similarities. Hansen et al. (2007), in a Norwegian study, corroborated these findings; these authors found no significant differences between marriage and cohabitation on measures of happiness or life satisfaction and very small differences in well-being. In even more recent research, Musick and Bumpass (2012) sought to explore whether marriage might in fact impose unwelcome social obligations and leave little space for cultivating outside relationships, autonomy and personal growth. These authors further posited that perhaps cohabitation may be a way of obtaining some of the benefits of marriage without all of the associated costs. Their research in the US using the first two waves of the National Survey of Families and Households found that the similarities between marriage and cohabitation were more striking than the differences. Indeed, entering into any union improved psychological well-being, although the authors found that while marriage conferred certain well-being outcomes, notably better health, cohabitation conferred others, i.e. happiness and self-esteem.

(p.162) Measures of well-being and social integration

Well-being is a broad and multifaceted construct and therefore we included, as did Musick and Bumpass (2012), a number of measures of well-being and social integration, as we are of the belief that ‘triangulation’, or coming at the same phenomenon from several vantage points, will optimise reliability and validity in our measurement.

One of the most important measures of well-being included a multi-item measure of social integration vs. social isolation adapted from the UN Generations and Gender Study (Vikat et al. 2005). Social integration measures the extent to which people feel part of the community and connectedness to other people, whereas social isolation measures loneliness and a lack of connection to people. This measure contains six items, three phrased in a positive direction (‘There are plenty of people that I can lean on in case of trouble’, ‘There are many people that I can count on completely’ and ‘There are enough people that I feel close to’) and three in a negative direction (‘I experience a general sense of emptiness’, ‘Often, I feel rejected’, and ‘I have felt lonely’). The Generations and Gender set of items had included the item, ‘I miss having people around.’ We piloted this item, together with all other items, in the early phases of the research, but found that it was interpreted differently in the Irish context and did not appear to be measuring loneliness but rather the notion that in general people were missed if they weren’t around. We thus eliminated it in the main study and replaced it with a similar negatively phrased item, ‘I have felt lonely.’ Respondents were asked to indicate if they agreed or disagreed with each statement slightly, moderately or strongly in relation to how they have felt recently. In addition, we examined the single variable of loneliness (‘I have felt lonely’) since preliminary item analysis showed it to be particularly discriminating.

In order to have a range of measures of well-being, tapping different components, we included a set of items measuring positive life experiences which was used in the Second European Quality of Life Survey (Anderson et al. 2009). This includes five statements which are all about positive feelings about life: (1) ‘I have felt cheerful and in good spirits’; (2) ‘I have felt calm and relaxed’; (3) ‘I have felt active and vigorous’; (4) I woke up feeling fresh and rested’; and (5) ‘My daily life has been filled with things that interest me’. People were asked to indicate how they have been feeling over the past two weeks. The possible responses ranged from 1 = ‘at no time’ to 6 = ‘all of the time’.

Physical health is also a key indicator of well-being. We asked respondents to rate their current state of physical health on a six-point scale ranging from very poor (1) to excellent (6). A similar measure was also included concerning self-assessed mental health.

Life satisfaction is perhaps the most widely used measure of psychological well-being. The question asked was, ‘Taking all things together, how satisfied are (p.163) you with your life these days?’ This was rated on a six-point scale ranging from 1 = very dissatisfied to 6 = very satisfied.

The NESC (2009), in its study of well-being in Ireland, found that one of the best indicators was the measure ‘On the whole, my life is close to how I would like to be’. Respondents in our study were asked to agree or disagree with this statement on a seven-point scale ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ (1) to ‘strongly agree’ (7).

The final measure of well-being concerned perceived standard of living. In the current economic climate, when many are suffering economic hardship (which was particularly the case at the time of data collection), this is a key measure of well-being. The question posed was, ‘Is your household income sufficient for you to afford a satisfactory standard of living?’ The response continuum ranged from 1 = ‘It is impossible to manage’ to 5 = ‘I/we can very easily manage.’

Effects of demographic characteristics on well-being and social integration

Our main analysis was carried out to see if people with different demographic characteristics had different levels of well-being. We were primarily interested in family status (single, married and cohabiting) as well as the effect of having a child on well-being. In addition, we were interested in the effects of gender, age, socio-economic status and living in an urban or a rural area and the extent to which these might interact with family status and presence or absence of children. The same technique used previously (analysis of variance) was used to analyse the simultaneous effects of six demographic characteristics (gender, family status, presence of children, age, socio-economic status and rural vs. urban location) on each of the eight measures of well-being:

  1. 1. Social integration vs. social isolation

  2. 2. Loneliness (‘I have felt lonely)’

  3. 3. Positive life experiences

  4. 4. Self-assessed physical health

  5. 5. Self-assessed mental health

  6. 6. Life satisfaction

  7. 7. ‘On the whole, my life is close to how I would like it to be’

  8. 8. Perceived standard of living.

The results for each of the measures of well-being are discussed below. The means for the main effects of the demographic characteristics on each of the measures of well-being, together with their level of significance, are presented in Table 10.1. (p.164)

Table 10.1 Analysis of variance: effects of six demographic characteristics on eight measures of well-being (N = 1,404).

Measures of well-being

Sex

 

Age (years)

Family status

 

Child status

Socio-economic status

Location

Male

Female

20–34

35–49

Single

Married

Cohabiting

Without children

with children

Skilled/unskilled

Non-manual

Professional/managerial/technical

Urban

Rural

(n = 706)

(n = 698)

(n = 759)

(n = 645)

(n = 625)

(n = 619)

(n = 160)

(n = 753)

(n = 651)

(n = 578)

(n = 303)

(n = 523)

(n = 556)

(n = 848)

1. Social Integration vs. Social Isolation

F = 0.67

F = 12.44***

F = 21.48***

 

F = 2.90

F = 3.24*

 

F = 11.00***

5.47

5.47

5.57

5.38

5.22

5.71

5.49

5.51

5.43

5.42

5.42

5.57

5.33

5.60

2. ‘I have felt lonely.’

F = 14.04***

F = 11.60***

F = 30.13***

 

F = 0.03

F = 0.22

 

F = 21.54***

3.31

3.76

3.38

3.70

4.07

3.09

3.44

3.57

3.51

3.49

3.66

3.47

3.80

3.29

3. Positive Life Experiences

F = 0.87

F = 3.63

F = 3.48*

 

F = 6.48*

F = 1.59

 

F = 17.78***

4.28

4.14

4.26

4.16

4.14

4.31

4.18

4.29

4.13

4.19

4.17

4.27

4.10

4.33

4. Self-Assessed Physical Health

F = 5.26*

F = 23.28***

F = 287

 

F = 4.37*

F = 3.80*

 

F = 5.36*

4.61

4.53

4.72

4.42

4.55

4.65

4.50

4.65

4.48

4.52

4.54

4.64

4.51

4.62

(p.165) 5. Self-Assessed Mental Health

F = 0.00

F = 8.20**

F = 1.82

 

F = 0.66

F = 5.69**

 

F = 2.78

4.73

4.78

4.85

4.66

4.70

4.84

4.73

4.80

4.71

4.68

4.71

4.88

4.70

4.81

6. Life Satisfaction

F = 2.48

F = 3.40

F = 24.89***

 

F = 2.58

F = 10.48***

 

F = 3.01

4.84

4.87

4.88

4.83

4.61

5.11

4.86

4.93

4.78

4.73

4.85

5.00

4.81

4.91

7. ‘On the whole, my life is close to how I would like it to be.’

F = 8.25**

F = 0.34

F = 32.82***

 

F = 1.06

F = 8.38***

 

F = 2.01

5.20

5.36

5.31

5.25

4.85

5.64

5.36

5.33

5.23

5.15

5.18

5.51

5.23

5.33

8. Perceived standard of living

F = 0.38

F = 0.09

F = 8.78***

 

F = 65.10***

F = 24.14***

 

F = 0.15

3.25

3.13

3.21

3.17

3.09

3.33

3.16

3.41

2.97

2.99

3.14

3.44

3.18

3.20

(*) p < .05

(**) p < .01

(***) p < .001

(p.166) Social integration vs. social isolation

The six items measuring social integration vs. social isolation were averaged for each respondent and a composite score computed. A higher score indicates greater social integration and a lower score greater social isolation. The analysis showed that while there were no differences based on gender or presence of children, there were highly significant differences for family status, age and rural/urban location as well as a moderately significant effect for socio-economic status. The strongest effect was for family status, which demonstrated that married people had the highest level of social integration, single people the lowest, and cohabiting people were in between (F = 21.48; p < .001). The next strongest effect was for age, with younger people being more likely to feel socially integrated and older people being more likely to feel socially isolated (F = 12.44; p < .001). A significant effect for rural/urban location showed that rural dwellers were also more likely to feel socially integrated, whereas urbans were more likely to feel socially isolated (F = 11.00; p < .001). Finally, an effect for SES indicated that those in the highest socio-economic group felt more socially integrated and less isolated than those in the lower and middle groups (F = 3.24: p < .05).

As noted above, an analysis of the individual items showed that of all of the six items, loneliness differentiated most strongly among the groups. A separate analysis carried out solely on this item corroborated the overall findings for social integration to the effect that married people were least likely to feel lonely, followed by cohabiting people, while single people experienced a much higher degree of loneliness (F = 30.13; p < .001). Rural people were also less likely to report feeling lonely and urban dwellers more so. Given that those in rural areas live with more space between them and urban dwellers live more closely together, this is an interesting and surprising finding. It suggests that there may be more interaction, support and feeling of belonging in rural areas, even though people may actually live more geographically isolated from one another, whereas in urban areas, while there may be less physical isolation, there would appear to be more psychological isolation. There was also an effect for gender, which did not manifest itself in the global score of social integration, showing that females are significantly lonelier than males (F = 14.04; p < .001). This was illustrated by the following quote from the qualitative study:

I suppose there is a certain amount of – there are moments of loneliness, there’s no doubt about that. I’m in my apartment and I want to share a bottle of wine or I want to watch a movie or I want to watch a TV programme and there’s nobody there …

(Female, 33, single, mortgage broker/administration, Dublin)

A significant interaction effect between gender, family status and presence of children, illustrated in Figure 10.1, reveals that single mothers are the loneliest of all groups in the study. They are lonelier than single women without children and (p.167)

The effect of family status on well-being

Figure 10.1 Loneliness: means for significant interaction effect between gender, family status and presence of children (N = 1,404).

lonelier than single fathers. This may indicate that the single fathers are more likely to have other social contacts than single mothers. It is surprising that single fathers – most of whom do not live with their children – are also less lonely than single men without children. This suggests that their relationships with their children may contribute to their well-being. Single mothers, on the other hand, are clearly a socially isolated group, even though they generally live with their children. Their loneliness would thus appear to stem from a lack of contact with other adults.

Positive life experiences

Rural/urban location showed a very strong effect on the summated measure, ‘Positive Life Experiences’, which included such items as ‘I have felt cheerful and in good spirits’, ‘I have felt calm and relaxed’, ‘I have felt active and vigorous’, ‘I woke up feeling fresh and rested’ and ‘My daily life has been filled with things that interest me’ (F = 17.78; p < .001). This suggests that the rural environment, with fresh air and living close to nature, not to mention the feelings of social integration of rural dwellers that we have already seen, apparently has many positive effects on mood and sense of well-being. Other demographic variables did not have such a strong effect on this measure as rural/urban location. However, in line with other results, married people had somewhat more positive life experiences than cohabiting or single people. Again, singles were the least well off in this regard. This measure also showed that those with children were less likely to report the various positive life experiences and those without children were more likely to do so.

(p.168) Physical health

In contrast to findings in some previous research (e.g., Musick and Bumpass 2012), we did not find that married people had better physical health than non-married people. In fact, there were no significant differences in health between any of the groups – married, cohabiting or single. On the other hand, age was a significant predictor of physical health, with older people (aged 35–49) reporting significantly poorer health and younger people (aged 20–34) better health (F = 23.28; p < .001). While it is well known that older people have poorer health, the fact that this difference manifests itself in this relatively young group of people of childbearing age is somewhat surprising. There were also effects for gender, presence of children, rural/urban location and socio-economic status, though these were much less strong. Men reported better physical health than women. People with children reported worse physical health than those with no children, suggesting that taking care of children can take a toll on health. The fact that women and those with children reported poorer health suggests that mothers in particular may be paying a physical cost. Those living in rural areas reported better health than those living in urban areas, corroborating the results already seen in relation to the measure, Positive Life Experiences, which had some health-related items. Finally, those in the highest socio-economic group reported better health than those in the lower two groups.

Mental health

As in the case of physical health, there were no significant effects of family status on mental health. However, age was a significant predictor of mental health. Younger people not only reported better physical health, they also reported better mental health (F = 8.20; p < .01). Socio-economic status was also significant for mental health as it was for physical health, with the highest group showing the best mental health and the lowest group the worst (F = 5.69; p < .01).

Life satisfaction

Life satisfaction is one of the most widely used global measures of well-being. Family status had a strong effect on life satisfaction, with married people having the highest life satisfaction, followed by cohabiting people (F = 24.89; p < .001). Single people had the lowest level of life satisfaction. Confirming other related results, socio-economic status was also significantly related to life satisfaction (F = 10.48; p < .001). It was a linear relationship in which those in the lowest SES group manifested the lowest life satisfaction, followed by those in the middle SES group, while those in the highest SES group had the greatest life satisfaction.

While there was no main effect of gender – men and women had similar levels of life satisfaction – a significant interaction effect between gender, family status and children revealed that single fathers have higher life satisfaction than single men without children. This is in line with the previous finding that single fathers are less lonely than single men without children. The higher life satisfaction of single fathers contrasts with that of cohabiting men; in the latter (p.169) case those without children have higher life satisfaction. Among married men, those without children also have somewhat higher life satisfaction. Among married women, those with children have very slightly higher life satisfaction, but the difference between them and married women without children is negligible. Among cohabiting women, those without children have somewhat higher life satisfaction. Among single women, those with children have lower life satisfaction than those without children by quite a margin, and, indeed, single mothers have the lowest life satisfaction of all groups (see Fig. 10.2). The fact that single fathers have higher life satisfaction relative to single men without children whereas single mothers have lower life satisfaction than single women without children may have to do with the fact that single fathers generally do not have to care for their children the way that single mothers do, so they can benefit from having children without the burdens of care. Of the seventy-three single fathers interviewed in the study, twelve had a child living with them. This constituted 16 per cent of all single fathers. This compares with 97 per cent of single mothers who had a child living with them. These findings also suggest that having a child, even if the child does not live with one, contributes to single fathers’ well-being. However, in contrast, it will be noted that several groups without children manifested greater life satisfaction than the same groups who had children. These included married and cohabiting men as well as single and cohabiting women. These findings are worth reflecting on and suggest that, in spite of the fact that children are highly valued, their presence can take a toll on parents’ well-being.

The effect of family status on well-being

Figure 10.2 Life satisfaction: means for significant interaction effect between gender, family status and presence of children.

(p.170) Extent to which respondent’s life is close to how they would like it to be

The global item ‘My life is close to how I would like it to be’ manifested several significant main effects. Family status was the strongest, with married people significantly more likely than others to say this was true (F = 32.82; p < .001). Cohabiting people were the next most likely, and single people were the least likely to say it. The gap between married and single people was particularly great (4.85 for singles vs. 5.64 for married people out of a maximum of 7). There was also an effect for socio-economic status showing that those in the highest SES group were more likely to agree with this statement, whereas those in the lower two groups were significantly less likely to do so (F = 8.38; p < .001). Finally, there was an effect for gender in the direction of women being somewhat more likely than men to say that their life was close to how they would like it to be (F = 8.25; p < .01).

A significant interaction effect illustrated in Figure 10.3 shows that there is a linear effect of socio-economic status for men, such that those in the lowest group were least likely to say that their life was close to how they would like it to be. Those in the middle group were more likely to say so, and those in the highest group were most likely to say so. However, for women, socio-economic status was not such a clear determinant of happiness with one’s life. While the highest SES group of women had the highest score, it was not that different from that of low SES women (5.47 vs. 5.39). In fact, it is women in the middle group (non-manual) who have the lowest score of all of the women (5.21). The overall means show that high SES men are most likely to say that their life is close to how they would like it to be (5.54), followed by high SES women (5.47). The group which is most disenchanted with their lives is low SES men. There is quite a discrepancy between lower SES men

The effect of family status on well-being

Figure 10.3 ‘My life is how I would like it to be’: means for significant interaction effect between gender and socio-economic status.

(p.171) and women (4.91 for men and 5.39 for women), indicating that lower SES men are more dissatisfied with their lives than lower SES women.

This is very likely related to the fact that lower SES men are more likely to be unemployed. Of those unemployed in the sample, 74% were male and 26% were female. Skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers were the most likely to be unemployed, compared with those in the higher SES groups. Of unemployed men, 81% were skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

Perceived standard of living

The final measure of well-being was Perceived Standard of Living. The strongest difference on this measure was between those with and without children (F = 65.10; p < .001) (Table 10.1). Those with children had a significantly lower perceived standard of living (mean = 2.97) than those without children (mean = 3.41). On a five-point scale, ranging from 1 (‘It is impossible to manage’) to 5 (‘I/we can very easily manage’), the perceived standard of living of those with children was on average at the level of ‘I/we can just about manage’, whereas those without children were approximately halfway between ‘just about manage’ and ‘can easily manage’.

Not surprisingly, socio-economic status was also a strong predictor of standard of living in a linear direction (F = 24.14; p < .001), but this effect was not as strong as the independent effect of having children, which reflects the high cost of raising children.

Family status was also associated with perceived standard of living: married people had a higher standard of living than cohabiting people, and single people had a slightly lower standard than cohabiting people (F = 8.28; p < .001).

A more differentiated approach to the well-being of single people: a look at dating and relationship behaviour

Dating behaviour

Up to this point, we have compared single people with cohabiting and married people. However, it could be argued that among single people there are various sub-groups, e.g., those who are in a relationship, those who are dating and those who are neither of these. In light of our findings so far which have indicated that married and cohabiting people have greater well-being on several measures than those who are single, we hypothesise that people who are dating have greater well-being than those who are not and that those who are in a steady relationship have greater well-being than those who are dating and much greater well-being than those who are not.

The single people in the study were asked about their current social life and dating behaviour. Over half (56 per cent) described themselves as ‘currently not going out with/seeing anyone’. This applied to 53 per cent of single men and 59 per cent of single women. Older single people (35–49) were more likely to say (p.172) they weren’t seeing anyone (69 per cent) than were younger (20–34) single people, of whom 52 per cent said they weren’t seeing anyone. Single people with children were much more likely to not be seeing anyone (70 per cent), as compared with single people without children, of whom only 54 per cent said they were not seeing anyone currently. Males were more likely than females to say that they were currently going out with/seeing one or more people casually (25 per cent of males vs. 16 per cent of females). Similar proportions of men and women said they were in a steady relationship (22 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women).

The effect of family status on well-being

Figure 10.4 Current dating behaviour of single people by gender and age (N = 625).

The effect of family status on well-being

Figure 10.5 Current dating behaviour of single people by presence of children and education (N = 625).

(p.173) Younger singles (20–34) were more likely to be seeing one or more people casually (22 per cent vs. 16 per cent of people aged 35–49) or to be in a steady relationship (26 per cent vs. 15 per cent of people aged 35–49). Those with the lowest level of educational qualifications were most likely to not be seeing anyone (75 per cent) and less likely to be seeing one or more people casually (15 per cent) or to be in a steady relationship (see Figures 10.4 and 10.5).

Happiness of single people in various dating situations

People in each of these three statuses (currently not going out with anyone, dating one or more people casually, and being in a steady relationship) were asked how happy they were with this situation, as shown in Table 10.2.

What is striking is the high level of happiness expressed by all groups, regardless of whether they were seeing no one, seeing one or more people casually or in a steady relationship. Of those not currently going out with anyone, 71 per cent described themselves as ‘happy’ to one degree or another; of those going out with one or more people casually, 87 per cent described themselves as ‘happy’, and of those in a steady relationship, 95 per cent described themselves as ‘happy’, as shown in Table 10.2 and illustrated in Figure 10.6. However, it is clear that being in a steady relationship leads to the highest levels of happiness, with 58 per cent of those saying they were ‘extremely happy’ and 26 per cent saying they were ‘very happy’. Dating alone did not lead to the same levels of extreme happiness. Just 13 per cent of those who were dating or going out with one or more people casually said they were ‘extremely happy’, whereas 33 per cent said they were ‘very happy’. Those who were not currently going out with anyone expressed less happiness overall: 22 per cent said they were ‘very happy’ and 15 per cent said they were ‘extremely happy’. It would seem then that the category of ‘quite happy’, which evokes a feeling of ‘contentment’ is the modal

Table 10.2 Happiness levels of those in various dating situations (N = 625).

 

Currently not going out/seeing anyone %

Dating/going out with one or more people casually %

In a steady relationship %

Extremely unhappy

2

1

1

Very unhappy

4

2

1

Quite unhappy

12

5

1

Neither

10

6

1

Quite happy

34

41

11

Very happy

22

33

26

Extremely happy

15

13

58

Total

100

100

100

(p.174) category for those not currently dating (34 per cent) and for those currently dating (41 per cent). In contrast, only 11 per cent of those in a steady relationship said they were ‘quite happy’. At the other end of the continuum, it is notable that there is relatively little unhappiness expressed, though there was greater unhappiness among those not dating, of whom 12 per cent said they were ‘quite unhappy’, 4 per cent said they were ‘very unhappy’ and 2 per cent said they were extremely unhappy. Those who were dating were somewhat less unhappy and those in a steady relationship were least likely to say they were unhappy.

Summary of key findings

While much research has documented the major demographic changes which have been taking place in our society and in societies around us, little research has examined the effects of these changes on people’s well-being. The present study compared single, cohabiting and married people on a range of measures of well-being. Married people were found to have the greatest well-being on six of the eight measures, including social integration, life satisfaction and positive life experiences. They were followed by cohabiting people. Single people had the lowest level of well-being and were found to be more socially isolated. The gap between married and single people was particularly great. Single mothers had the lowest life satisfaction and were the loneliest of all groups. They had lower life satisfaction than single women without children and lower life satisfaction than single fathers.

The effect of family status on well-being

Figure 10.6 Happiness levels of those in various dating situations (N = 625).

(p.175) When the well-being of single people was analysed more closely, it was found that those who were in steady relationships were much more likely to say they were very happy or extremely happy than were those who were dating casually or not at all.

These findings underpin the value of relationships to well-being and in particular the value of marriage to people’s well-being.

The effect of children was different for people in different family statuses. Single fathers had greater life satisfaction and were less lonely than single men without children. In contrast, single mothers had lower life satisfaction and were lonelier than single fathers and single women without children. The first of these findings was interpreted in terms of the greater social isolation of single mothers relative to single fathers, related in large part to their caring responsibilities. Nevertheless, the greater well-being of single fathers relative to single men without children indicates the positive effects that fatherhood has for single men. Among married and cohabiting men, having children was associated with somewhat lesser life satisfaction than that enjoyed by married and cohabiting men without children. This effect was also true for cohabiting women – those without children had greater life satisfaction. The lesser life satisfaction of several groups with children may be related to the fact that those with children reported a lower standard of living and poorer physical health as well as fewer positive life experiences. Of these, the poorer standard of living was by far the strongest effect, indicating that the cost of raising children may take its toll on parental well-being.

Socio-economic status (SES) was also a significant predictor of well-being. High SES men were most likely to say that their life was close to how they would like it to be, followed by high SES women. The group most disenchanted with their lives on this dimension was low SES men. There was a significant discrepancy between low SES men and women, indicating that the former were much more dissatisfied with their lives. The higher unemployment rate of lower SES men is undoubtedly a significant contributor to this finding.

The results also demonstrated a consistent effect of rural vs. urban location on well-being. Rural dwellers manifested greater well-being on several measures, whereas urban dwellers were more likely to be socially isolated and lonely, to have fewer positive experiences and to have poorer health.

While the sample was designed to include people in the childbearing age group and hence was relatively young – 20–49 years – there were nevertheless consistent age differences in well-being. Older respondents (35–49) were more likely to feel socially isolated and lonely and to report poorer mental and physical health.

Given that we are witnessing an increase in the proportion of single people in the population, including an increase in single mothers, and an increase in divorced and separated people, it is likely that a greater proportion of our (p.176) society will become vulnerable to poorer psychological well-being. Our society is changing from one which was previously richer in social networks and is now characterised by greater social isolation, particularly in urban areas. The relative psychological well-being of different groups in society, as reflected in these findings, should be of increasing concern to policy makers in the coming years and is clearly an important issue to be addressed by social policy.