I am a social-personality psychologist interested in how relationships—and the people in them—change over time and across situations. My research focuses on how factors both inside (biological, hormonal) and outside (social roles, geography) of people influence their approach to social relationships. My work examines phenomena as broad as how relationships and social institutions shape development and as focused as the hormonal mechanisms that underlie love and intimacy.
What makes a person healthy? One interesting way to approach this question is to first identify whether or not the person is happy. Life satisfaction is associated with a wide array of positive outcomes—better immune performance, better cardiovascular functioning, less vulnerability to stress, and even living longer. Not surprisingly, happy people are also healthy people.
However, we live in the presence of other people, of course, and their well-being can have profound effects on us as well. One question we had was, is being surrounded by happy people good for our health then? We decided to focus on the most influential “other” in lives, namely our significant other or romantic partner.
My coauthor Ed O’Brien and I measured the happiness and health of nearly 2,000 couples over the age of 50. We replicated previous work and found that happy people were not only healthier but were also more physically active. More surprisingly, we found that being married to a happy partner was associated with better health, lower disability, and more physical activity—and this was all found over-and-above the effect of a person’s own happiness.
Our study is one of the only to show that another person’s happiness is good for your health and these effects can persist over a six-year period. The next question we hope to tackle is, why is this the case? Do happy partners provide care for us when we are older—reminding us to take our medicine? Or do happy partners motivate us to be more active or eat healthier? Or do we just worry less about our partners if they’re happy? As we examine these questions we hope to identify other ways that couples can live happier—and healthier—lives together.