A number of previous studies have linked a person’s own happiness to health and longevity, but the researchers wondered if being around “happy others” might have a similar effect. To test the theory, Chopik and O’Brien assessed the health and happiness of nearly 2,000 couples, ages 50 to 94, over a period of six years. Both partners rated their individual happiness and life satisfaction, and answered questions about their personal physical health, including their activity level and any chronic health problems.
It turned out that the happiness of a person’s spouse was strongly linked to how healthy the individual was—in measures of overall health, physical impairment, and activity level. And this seemed to work for both partners. Even more, the effects of a partner’s happiness on a person’s health were independent of the individual’s own happiness level. “The current study demonstrates that happy partners seem to substitute as proxies for a happy self,” write Chopik and O’Brien.
The connection can be explained by a few theories: One is that caretaking given by a happy (rather than unhappy) partner could boost a person’s health. Another is that having a more positive partner might inspire one to engage in healthy activities such as exercise, healthy eating, and regular sleep. Finally, living with a happier spouse might increase emotional well-being, and perhaps reduce a person’s overall stress level, as well as reduce the risk for stress-related chronic health issues.
The findings also highlight how physical health is a bigger concept than we often think, more a system than an individual issue. “Previous findings are often devoid of social contexts,” says O’Brien. “The picture that’s been painted is largely about one’s own self in isolation; but in daily life, our health and happiness might also be largely affected by people around us. We find a ‘cross-over’ effect of sorts—happier partners signal healthier selves.”
So if you have a happy spouse, the negative effects of unhappiness may be offset by your partner’s healthy habits. And, if future research supports the connection, spousal happiness may one day become another health marker. “It suggests a novel way to potentially detect and therefore treat declining health in an individual,” says O’Brien. “An unhappy spouse might hint at health problems in oneself.”