Happy Spouse, Longer Life?
Have you ever wondered about how much of your life has been affected by who you decided to marry? Of course, the person you decided to spend your life with is likely to have affected where you live, what you eat for dinner, and what you do in your free time – after all, most couples decide about those things together. But can your spouse have consequences for your personal life outcomes too, such as your career success, health, and longevity?
They might. For example, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that people with more conscientious, diligent, and well-organized spouses are more likely to earn higher incomes and get more promotions at work. Another study showed that people with more optimistic spouses are more likely to report better physical health.
My recent research has shown that the reach of one’s spouse may extend beyond general health to affect people’s mortality.
I explored the data from a nationally representative survey of the American elderly (the Health and Retirement Study, funded by the National Institute on Aging). Participants were married or cohabiting couples aged 50 or older (99% were heterosexual) and were followed for up for 8 years, from 2006 to 2014.
At the beginning of the study period, participants and their spouses completed questionnaires that included measures of their life satisfaction. For example, using a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), they were asked to indicate their agreement with statements such as “In most ways my life is close to my ideal” and “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.” The survey included a range of other questions, such as perceived support from the spouse, frequency of physical activity, and health-related information, such as the number of diagnosed chronic diseases they had.
Participants’ and their spouses’ responses to these questions were linked to the National Death Index managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This allowed me to determine who among the surveyed participants stayed alive and who had passed away during the course of the study, that is, up until 2014.
What I found was that participants who reporter greater life satisfaction at the beginning of the study were more likely to still be alive 8 years later. But perhaps more notably, regardless of their own life satisfaction, participants whose spouses reported greater life satisfaction at the beginning were also more likely to still be around 8 years later.
One possible explanation of these findings is that unhappy spouses are unhappy precisely because their other half is having health problems. In other words, is it possible that mortality is predicted not by spousal unhappiness but rather by people’s initially poor health? Most probably, not. My analyses showed that having a happy spouse was associated with lower mortality risk regardless of the person’s physical health status at the beginning of the study.
So, how exactly does one spouse’s happiness translate into the other spouse’s longevity? My first idea was that people might get more support from happier spouses, which might have positive downstream consequences for longevity. However, that was not the case: even though happier spouses were more supportive, their support did not matter for longevity.
The next suspects were life style differences. Our daily life style – what we eat for dinner, whether we spend our evenings in front of the TV or go out for a walk, whether our fridge is stocked with fruit or ice cream – is the result not only of our own choices and preferences but also those of our partner. For example, if your partner is depressed and wants to spend the evening eating chips in front of the TV, that’s how your evening will probably turn out as well.
Indeed, my results showed that the life satisfaction of one person was positively associated with that person’s physical activity, which was linked to his or her spouse’s physical activity, which in turn predicted the spouse’s lower mortality risks. So, it looks like happier people are more likely to have a healthier lifestyle, which potentially makes their spouses adopt that lifestyle too, thereby contributing to the spouses’ longevity.
Happiness has been linked to many positive consequences for happy individuals. My research suggests that the benefits of happiness might not end there and can potentially extend to the happy people’s partners.
For Further Reading
Stavrova, O. (2019). Having a Happy Spouse Is Associated With Lowered Risk of Mortality. Psychological Science, 30(5), 798-803.
Solomon, B. C., & Jackson, J. J. (2014). The long reach of one's spouse: spouses' personality influences occupational success. Psychological Science, 25(12), 2189-2198.
Kim, E. S., Chopik, W. J., & Smith, J. (2014). Are people healthier if their partners are more optimistic? The dyadic effect of optimism on health among older adults. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 76(6), 447-453.
Olga Stavrova is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Tilburg University, the Netherlands.