Measuring happiness has always been a challenge for researchers, because of the different ways that happiness can be defined. But there seems to be an impressive body of research showing a consistent link between physical health and level of happiness. For example, studies show that people high in self-reported life satisfaction (one possible definition of happiness) have stronger immune systems, better cardiovascular functioning, greater resistance to chronic stress, and longer lifespans that individuals who score lower in happiness measures. Generally speaking, happy people are healthy people, even when lifestyle factors, demographics, and overall quality of life are taken into account.
But what happens if researchers take this one step further?
As the saying goes, "no man is an island" and, for the most part, people are happiest when they are surrounded by friends and family who are happy as well. Research consistently shows that married people tend to be happier than unmarried people. Does this mean that happiness in your significant other can influence how healthy you can be? Intriguing new research seems to suggest this.
A new study published in Health Psychology provides what may be the first in-depth look at the link between physical health and happiness in romantic partners. William B. Chopik of Michigan State University and Ed O'Brien of the University of Chicago carried out their research using data taken from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) sponsored by the National Institute of Aging and conducted by the University of Michigan.
Using face-to-face interviews and structured surveys, the HRS has been collecting a wide range of demographic and health-factor data on more than 22,0000 Americans over the age of 50. Begun in 1992 and repeated every two years, the HRS is one of the largest longitudinal research projects of his kind in the world.
During their study, Chopik and O'Brien compiled data from 1,981 heterosexual couples; participants ranged in age from 50 to 94. Each participant self-reported measures of life satisfaction, health status, degree of physical impairment, history of chronic disease, level of overall physical activity, and whether they had concerns about physical or emotional problems in their partner.
Using dyadic data analysis of the collected data, the results were broken down into estimates of actor effects (the link between a person’s happiness and his or her own health) and partner effects (how a person's happiness was linked to his or her partner's health). Data on happiness collected during the first assessment wave was used as a baseline to measure how both health and happiness changed over time.
As expected, results show that a person's happiness is associated with better self-health and healthier lifestyle choices during the first test phase, and in all follow-up testing phases. However, partner happiness also predicted how healthy individuals tended to be over time, as well as the kind of lifestyle choices people made, such as level of exercise. In fact, the link between partner happiness and health remained strong even when personal happiness was taken into account, and it tended to grow stronger over time. This suggests that even unhappy people can gain positive health benefits from having a happy partner.
So what accounts for crossover between partner happiness and health? Chopik and O'Brien discussed possible reasons for this link, including:
Previous research demonstrated that unhappy people are vulnerable to a wide range of psychological and physical problems, but the impact of partner happiness on health has been largely ignored up to now. Certainly, treatment programs aimed at improving healthy behavior and life satisfaction often focus on patients as individuals rather than looking at the important influence that partners may have on them.
Granted, there are limitations to this study, including the difficulty in determining whether a proper causal relationship exists. In other words, do happy spouses lead to greater health or does having a healthy partner lead to greater happiness? Chopik and O'Brien designed their study to test changes in health over time, so more research is necessary to explore the happiness/health link further. Also, research is needed to look at the link between partner happiness and chronic disease, and whether it can lead to longer lives in general.
While the state of our health can involve many different factors, some of which are beyond our control, partner happiness appears to be far more important than we realize. As Chopik and O'Brien state in the conclusion of their paper, "The presence of one person’s sickness may be subtly indicated by the absent smile of another."
Chopik, W. J., & O’Brien, E. (2017). Happy you, healthy me? Having a happy partner is independently associated with better health in oneself. Health Psychology, 36(1), 21-30.