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Health

Want to Be Healthy? Find a Happy Partner

Happy or unhappy, your partner is having a surprising influence on your health.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Whether you want to lose a few pounds, improve your heart health, increase your mental energy, or build strength, most fitness plans that you read about will focus on you. Which of your habits can you change? What stress do you have, and what obstacles are limiting your happiness, a strong predictor of physical health?

We tend to view the pursuit of health as a solitary journey, driven by internal motivation and reflecting our own — and only our own — specific circumstances.

But what if there's another angle? What if instead of focusing so much on what's happening in your own life, you start focusing on your romantic partner? After all, we spend a lot of time with our partners. Are they influencing us in ways we aren't aware? Could your romantic partner's happiness be influencing your own physical health?

It's a fascinating idea that the happiness of your partner is shaping your own health . . . and in turn, your happiness is affecting your partner's health. Scientists examining this phenomenon offer three reasons for why it would make sense (Chopkin & O'Brien, 2017).

Having a happy partner may benefit your own physical health because:

1. Happy partners tend to be more supportive and less preoccupied by their own stress.

2. Happy partners are more likely to encourage healthy behaviors (e.g., seeing friends, getting sleep, choosing good foods) than unhappy partners.

3. Having a partner who is happy may benefit health, because it feels good to know your partner is happy. This can limit potentially harmful relationship stress or health-adverse behaviors (e.g., drinking) that might come from having an unhappy partner.

Sure, these are compelling rationales, but do the data support the idea that romantic partners' happiness has a cross-over effect on individuals' own health? Chopik and O'Brien (2017) think so. They sampled data for approximately 2,000 couples from the Health and Retirement Study, gathering participants' reports of global life satisfaction and a variety of health measures (e.g., self-reported health, physical activity, disease) over four time periods (in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012).

What did they learn?

1. People with happy partners feel healthier. Self-reported health was higher among people with happy romantic partners versus unhappy romantic partners.

2. People with happy partners engage in more exercise. Not just light or moderate exercise — people with happy partners are engaging in more vigorous exercise too.

3. People with happy partners have just as much chronic disease as people with unhappy partners. This is actually a compelling finding, given the above two points. A happy partner might not decrease your susceptibility towards chronic disease, but it could still have you feeling healthier than having an unhappy partner.

4. A partner's happiness predicts health above and beyond a person's own happiness and other life circumstances. This is the study's most startling and exciting finding: We tend to view physical fitness as an intrapersonal process, but perhaps it's much more interpersonal than we have previously thought. Our romantic partner's happiness is a unique and independent contributor to our own health.

This study (Chopik & O'Brien, 2017) was the first to identify the link between partners' happiness and individuals' health. The multiple time points in which they gathered data push their research beyond cross-sectional, allowing for tentative inferences of potential causal paths; although, the true direction of causality warrants additional research. In other words, it could be that your health is affecting your partner's happiness rather than the other way around, but this isn't consistent with the null finding between people's levels of chronic disease and their partners' happiness. In any case, more research is necessary to determine the true relation of these variables, but there's a good suggestion that romantic partners' happiness may affect individuals' health.

The general idea that romantic partners influence us is no surprise, but the idea that their happiness predicts our physical health (Chopik & O'Brien, 2017) is novel and exciting. In one way, we have a new excuse for poor fitness ("It's my partner's fault I'm not at the gym!"), but from another perspective, we have a chance to consider our fitness within its important social context. Romantic partners affect our moods, how we think, how we see the world — it's no wonder that their happiness may influence our health, too.

References

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, 21-30.

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