Loving and losing – is the cost too high?

24th October, 2009

Dear Economist,
With the imminent passing of my pet rat I am faced with a lot of grief; he has been a great pet and so I will be more saddened by his passing than if he had been a bad one. My question is: is it possible for the cost (the grief from losing a friend/pet/family member) to outweigh the benefit (the joy gained through time spent with them) and so make the purchase of my pet not worth it, as the net benefit would be negative? Would there be a point where you would say: “I don’t want to get involved because I love X so much that I will be destroyed if I lose him?”

Dear Ilka,

Your intriguing problem has not, as far as I know, been explored by economists before, although it has been discussed by artists. Your ailing rat puts me in mind of a departed sparrow, mourned in verse by Catullus. Paul Simon expressed the trade-off more directly in his early song “I Am a Rock”: “If I never loved I never would have cried.”

But poetic speculation gets us nowhere. Let’s head straight to the data. Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, provides the following data points to ponder, based on surveys of life-satisfaction. Relative to never having been married, being married is worth 0.38 “points” of life satisfaction on a scale of 1-7. Being separated is worth -0.24, widowed -0.19 and divorced -0.09.

This is not much to go on, but it is better than nothing. If we incautiously interpret these numbers as causal – in fact they are merely correlations – then we could conclude that 20 years of marriage is compensation for up to 40 years of widowhood. Ten years of marriage more than justifies 40 years as a divorcee.

For human marriages, these odds seem pretty good. For a pet rat, less so: the little darlings hit puberty at six weeks and rarely live past three years. Perhaps you should buy a tortoise next time.

Also published at ft.com.

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