What the King Midas myth teaches about happy marriages

W. Bradford Wilcox spoke at BYU about how the ‘Midas mentality’ prevents people from choosing family life

PROVO, Utah — Greek mythology tells the story of King Midas: a monarch who, unsatisfied with the beautiful life he shared with his wife and daughter, wished for all he touched to become gold. But too late, when his daughter became a gold statue, he discovered that his gift was actually a curse.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, told the story while speaking at a Brigham Young University forum on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

He said that in today’s society, many people suffer from a “Midas mindset”: the idea that careers, education, money or other pursuits are more important than marriage and family life.

He shared a variety of articles from Bloomberg, The Atlantic, The New York Times and others, all promoting the idea that freedom from family life is the key to happiness.

Despite this, research shows that married people are happier than single people, Wilcox said.

He highlighted data from the General Social Survey showing that while college degrees, satisfying jobs and other individual pursuits increase happiness, “simply being married is a more powerful predictor of happiness for ordinary Americans.”

Additionally, married people in their 50s have 10 times more financial assets than their single peers; and happily married people, in general, experience longer lives.

“Our ties with others ... end up being much more crucial to our welfare than how much money we have in the bank, because these ties afford meaning and direction and a sense of solidarity,” Wilcox said, adding that, “It’s these ties, not the priorities associated with the Midas mindset, that are most conducive to our happiness today in America.”

Five pillars of strong marriages

Brigham Young University students listen to W. Bradford Wilcox speak at a university forum.
Brigham Young University students listen to W. Bradford Wilcox speak at a university forum in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. | Joey Garrison/BYU

Even though marriage brings the greatest happiness, Wilcox said marriage rates have dropped about 65% since 1970, meaning that one in three of today’s young adults will never marry. And while many people think this isn’t a problem, “I am obviously not convinced that we should be nonplussed by this. ... The bad news this morning is that too many men and women are not able to find their way to the altar.”

But there’s good news, too. Wilcox said that in his research, he has identified four groups of Americans who forge strong, generally happy marriages despite the prevalence of the Midas mindset: Asian Americans, conservative people, religious people and college-educated people.

Their success is found in five key pillars:

  • Communion, or a sense of “we before me” in a marriage.
  • Children, or recognizing that children depend upon the stability of their parents’ marriage.
  • Commitment, or recognizing the necessity of fidelity and loyalty in a marriage.
  • Cash, or recognizing the practical importance of money in a marriage.
  • Community, or being surrounded by people who support a couple’s marriage.

Wilcox added that today’s popular opinions often frame tradition, and especially religious tradition, as a hindrance to happiness; but a YouGov survey he conducted with colleagues found that couples who attend church together are almost 20 percentage points more likely to be very happy in their marriages. They’re also more likely to be satisfied in their sexual lives, he said.

“So we can see that when it comes to religion, that the family-first values, virtues and social networks supplied by religion typically strengthen and stabilize marriage in America today,” Wilcox said.

Promoting marriage, he continued, means forging a “marriage mindset” in high schools and colleges, on social media, and in churches and homes.

“Every social media platform needs compelling new voices like yours to tell the truth about the most important social institution in winsome and powerful ways,” Wilcox said. “In other words, you and I have to build a culture centered around the most important thing, which of course is not gold, but love.”

W. Bradford Wilcox speaks at a Brigham Young University forum in Provo, Utah.
W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, speaks at a Brigham Young University forum in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. | Joey Garrison/BYU
Related Stories
How forgiveness can affect marriage and family relationships
Strengthening Marriage and Family teacher shares the blessings from the classes
Episode 109: Deseret News national politics editor on what the American Family Survey reveals about family, marriage
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed

Former BYU basketball star Jimmer Fredette and his wife, Whitney, demonstrated the ease of preserving memories on FamilySearch by sharing personal stories in a class at RootsTech.

The Emmy and Tony Award-winning performer delighted the audience with personal stories and a selection of songs.

The event included live music, games and a special Puerto Rican family history project.

The late President M. Russell Ballard was featured in a Family Discovery Day video talking about his rich family history and faith at various Church History sites at RootsTech 2024.

No matter what people have accomplished in the past, life is an ongoing quest to be better — including better spiritually to be gentler, more hopeful and, more loving, Lloyd Newell observes in this week’s “Music & the Spoken Word.” Watch it here.

During the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra’s last concert of its Philippines tour, thousands gathered across the country to tune into the concert’s livestream, which will be available for a year. Also, choir members sang for the Philippines Senate. #TabChoirPhilippines