It has been well established that happy people are more likely to be healthy people, though this effect on well-being has been largely studied in respect to the individual. The American Psychology Association has recently released a study that attempts to see if, among middle- or older-aged adults, a happy spouse or partner could have an effect on one’s emotional or physical health. Interestingly, they did. More interestingly, this effect seemed to exceed or at least amplify the influence of an individual’s own personal happiness.
The study looked at 1,981 heterosexual couples, aged 50 to 94, and surveyed them about self-rated happiness, health, and physical activity over a six-year period. Eighty-four percent of participants where white, 8% were African American, and 6% were Hispanic. The questions included subjects like physical impairments, chronic illnesses, concerns about their spouse’s health, and personal ratings of happiness and life satisfaction.
In addition to confirming that personal happiness was a predictor of better self-health and exercise reports, spousal happiness was also shown to have a correlation with this outcome. Uniquely, spousal happiness appeared to have an influence “above and beyond” a person’s personal happiness. These effects were noticed regardless of whether a husband or wife was examined. The study wasn’t capable of giving an explanation for this finding, but the authors offer some possibilities:
- Happy partners are a better form of social support and caretaking
- Happy partners might get unhappy or unhealthy people involved with more positive activities, environments, or habits like eating more nutritious food or exercising
- A happy partner can make life easier in general, even if not directly happier
- The knowledge that one’s partner is happy and satisfied might curb personal desires for self-destructive behavior like drinking or drugs
The idea that being around happy people can help improve personal welfare is not particularly groundbreaking, though it is neat to see someone try and grab data to support the notion. Only older or middle-aged adult couples were covered by the study, so it isn’t clear whether the effect would apply to younger couples or even how big a time delay is required for the effect to start appearing.
One other thing that isn’t immediately clear is how (or if) the researchers controlled for this very effect in their analysis. If the happiness of a partner improves personal well-being and happiness, then how the researchers separate that effect from a person’s own happiness to get a baseline would matter for the final results. Or I’m just really over thinking this and should just leave things at “being with a happy person can make you happier and healthier.”
Chopik, W., et. al., “Happy You, Healthy Me? Having a Happy Partner is Independently Associated With Better Health in Oneself,” Health Psychology, 2016; 10.1037/hea0000432.