Arranged marriages, and happiness of a nation

The latest rankings in the World Happiness Report 2018 place India as low as 133 in a list of 156 countries. What is more troubling is that India has been on a declining trend, slipping 11 places in the 2018 report as compared to 2017. While on the economic and developmental indices, India seems to be moving in the positive direction, on happiness—the ultimate goal—it is concerning that India is slipping towards the very bottom.

What can India do to stem this rapid decline?

Perhaps we should learn from Latin America. They suffer from a situation of weak political institutions, high corruption, high violence and crime rates, very unequal distribution of income, and high poverty rates, but are far higher up the list in happiness ratings. Latin Americans’ happiness levels are also above what income levels would predict. “World Happiness Report” explains the happiness in Latin American countries through the strength of strong family ties.

The family is the basic unit and foundation upon which society is built and sustained. The family thus plays an important role in the functional nature of society. J.H. Larson and T.B. Holman (1994) described marriage as the most important and fundamental relationship because it provides the basic structure for establishing a family and raising the next generation.

As part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life spanning 80 years, researchers have collected a cornucopia of data on their physical and mental health.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.” According to the study, strong relationships are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.

Thus, quality of the relationship with one’s life partner becomes a parameter that has crucial significance beyond the four walls of one’s house. In the focus to eradicate the burden of caste from our society and obliterate the oppressive attitudes of the khap panchayats, inter-caste marriages are encouraged in India by governments and modern society as a whole. While this trend has several positives going for it, it also has a fundamental flaw. It encourages individual decision-making epitomized by love marriages over collective decision-making epitomized by the concept of arranged marriages. It removes parents, immediate family members, and the immediate societal links from the decision-making process regarding choosing one’s life partner.

Western cultures, with their emphasis on personal desires and independence, have long since moved away from this practice of involving parents in the marriage decision. On the other hand, arranged marriages are seen as outdated concepts where the decision regarding one’s life partner, possibly the most important decision in one’s life, is taken in a jiffy with the individuals concerned having little say and the family members taking all the crucial decisions.

Sheena Iyengar, professor at Columbia Business School and author of the famous book The Art Of Choosing, Cassie Mogilner, professor of marketing at Wharton Business School, and Baba Shiv, professor of marketing at Stanford Business School, have studied love marriages and arranged marriages through the lens of brain’s decision-making process. According to them, there are broadly two types of decision-making processes—sequential and simultaneous. Sequential decision-making is the process where only a single option is considered at any point of time. This is mostly used in situations where the cost of choosing a wrong option is very low and the consequence of a wrong decision is very low. Whereas, when the cost of a decision is high and the consequence of a decision is very high, we tend to use simultaneous decision-making—a decision-making process where all the options available are evaluated simultaneously and the best is chosen.

Love marriages follow sequential decision-making process while arranged marriages follow simultaneous decision-making process. Studies have shown that the levels of satisfaction after a decision arrived through simultaneous decision-making process is higher than if the same decision was made through a sequential process.

In an arranged marriage, the information search is a collective process involving parents, family members, and other members of the society. Whereas in love marriages, the information search is solely an individual’s responsibility. Cognitive dissonance theory reminds us that one tends to collect information that confirms with our existing thinking. One tends to avoid negative information about one’s existing beliefs, if the final choice has already been made. Decisions of love marriage tend to fall prey to this fallacy. A 2004 study from the University College London has proved that what Shakespeare wrote, “Love is blind and lovers cannot see”, is true. Feelings of love suppress certain areas of the brain that are responsible for critical thinking.

Of course, the processes involved in arranged marriages have to improve so as to allow more discussions between the individuals who are to get married. But one cannot ignore arranged marriages’ superiority in providing more stable marriages, and thus building a society that is happier than most.livemint