Volume 13, Number 2
People who are happy and have a high degree of satisfaction with their lives are healthier, according to numerous research studies. It is also known that moods tend to be contagious in social interactions, and in close relationships. Furthermore, it has been established that romantic couples tend to change in similar ways over time. With these findings serving as a point of departure, investigators from Michigan State University and the University of Chicago recently published in Health Psychology the results of a study in which they examined the degree to which partner happiness could affect one’s own health.
Their study analyzed data from nearly 2000 heterosexual married couples, participants in the larger Health and Retirement Study (HRS), in which both wife and husband were at least 50 years old. Participants in the HRS had their health assessed in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012. Results of the study were that the happiness of one’s partner predicted one’s self-health. Having a happy partner was associated with being less physically impaired and more physically active, and these effects persisted over the six years that the couples had health assessments. Importantly, the happiness of one’s partner predicted one’s health over and above the extent to which one’s own happiness contributed to self-health. These effects were found for both men and women.
Persons who have a propensity to experience more positive mood states are found to be more energetic, motivated, and active. Given that moods are contagious, having a happy partner affects one’s own energy and motivation, which in turn can promote physical activity. Other studies have also demonstrated the opposite effect: having a depressed partner increases one’s risk for experiencing chronic disease and functional impairments.
While a person doesn’t control the happiness of others, including one’s spouse, an individual has much control over one’s own happiness, which tends to affect the moods of those with whom one interacts. Finding optimistic perspectives, practicing gratitude, maintaining positive health behaviors such as getting the recommended amount of sleep and being physically active, and engaging in pro-social behavior (acts that benefit others) are all known to contribute to life satisfaction and happiness. In relationships, having at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions is associated with relationship satisfaction and strength.
As noted, the study described above examined heterosexual married couples. Although other intimate relationships haven’t been studied, it is reasonable to expect that interacting with happy people in general has a salubrious (healthy-enhancing) effect. Most people desire to be happy and healthy, so one pathway toward supporting these goals in others is to nurture them in oneself. This is a win-win scenario.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor of Family Medicine and Director of Behavioral Science for the Family Medicine Residency Program, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. His clinical practice includes psychotherapy, consultation, and coaching.
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