During January Thom and I decided to experiment with our diet. We had attended a lecture in December that warned us about how eating wheat and sugar was detrimental to a healthy and aging brain. That caught our attention. So during the month we avoided bread, pasta or anything containing wheat. We also eliminated desserts, juice or any beverage with added sugars. While it wasn’t without challenges, it wasn’t that difficult either—mostly because we were doing it together. Perhaps with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, it’s SMART to remember that some of the greatest gifts of long and happy relationships are our collective health, happiness, and well-being.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that research backs this up. People who are happy and report high life satisfaction tend to be healthier. Numerous studies support these facts showing that happy people have a stronger immune system, better heart function, are more resilient against stress, and even have a longer life regardless of their baseline fitness, differences in demographics, and even life circumstances. Happier people are healthier people.
Hand-in-hand is research that proves that those people in long-term relationships, either marriage or cohabitation, are positively influenced in the areas of life satisfaction and wellbeing. This is especially pronounced when the couple considers their partner to be their best friend. A particular study completed in 2015 by the “National Bureau of Economic Research” reports, “Those whose spouse or partner is also considered their best friend get almost twice as much additional life satisfaction from marriage or cohabitation as do others.”
Of course, what isn’t emphasized in many of these studies is that people who survive an unhappy relationship and divorce are likely much happier by themselves alone. I’ve always believed that being single is far better than being married to the wrong person. And let’s not forget, as author Wayne Dyer said at one time, “If you are unhappy living in a particular town, chances are that moving to another town won’t change that.” On the flipside, if you are happy in one town you’ll probably be equally happy in the next. Wherever you go, and with whom you are with, there you are.
But beyond the abundance of studies that reveal that happier people are healthier, married or not, a new study announced in 2016 took the information deeper. William J. Chopik from Michigan State University and Ed O’Brien from University of Chicago wanted to know if just living with a happy person could also affect a person’s health in a positive way. They realized from previous research that “social contagion” plays a big part in a person’s well-being, so they wanted to see if something similar occurred with a person’s health. (In other words, like a contagion, we indirectly “infect” the people around us by our moods, beliefs, and actions either positively or negatively. ) What this new study wanted to discover is whether, “self-health is independently predicted by the happiness of one’s spouse.”
Also important to notice, they deliberately studied over 22,000 married adults from age 50 to 94. Not only were they curious about how health might be affected as people age, great interest exists from the government and other groups to identify factors that may benefit and enhance health in our aging population. This study confirms that happier people are healthier people and at the same time offered evidence that happier partners lead to better self-health—even though the partner makes no conscious effort on their own. They proved it in five significant ways:
- The happiness level of our partners influences both our individual health and our behavior. As the study states, “…participants with happy partners were significantly more likely to report better health, experience less physical impairment, and exercise more frequently than participants with unhappy partners, even after accounting for the impact of their own happiness and other life circumstances. Again, none of these effects meaningfully diminished over time suggesting that having a happy partner could afford surprisingly long-lasting effects on a person’s own health.”
- The happiness level of one partner influences the other regardless of that person’s own initial happiness. And, as the study states, “In most cases, the effects of the partner happiness on an individual’s health increase over time.”
- Other people, and most especially our romantic partner, influence us by their very presence. This impacts our own feelings, behaviors and the outcomes of our lives.
- Gender did not seem to change the results. In other words, regardless of whether you are a wife, a husband or any other type of partner, the results stayed true. Also relevant was, “The meaningful benefits of partner happiness are likely cumulative in nature and emerge only after significant time spent together;”
- No “self” lives in isolation. Those around us influence us on many levels. As the study explains, “…the self lives in rich social contexts comprised of other people who likely influence this process, perhaps no more so than a romantic partner. The current study demonstrates that happy partners seem to substitute as proxies for a happy self. Precisely because happiness is thought to fuel energy, happy spouses may devote more effort to improving the lives of their unhappy counterparts, who may be less motivated to do so on their own.”
The report goes on to explain how a happy romantic partner may likely influence the health of the other partner beyond that partner’s own involvement. They speculate it happens in three ways:
- If one needs assistance, a happier partner is more likely to provide caretaking. Unhappy partners, not so much.
- A happy partner is more likely to help sync up healthier behaviors within the relationship with things like better sleep routines, better food choices, etc.
- A happier partner makes life easier, which leads to greater satisfaction and wellbeing in the other partner (regardless of that partner’s own happiness set-point) so that they are more likely to avoid self-destructive behaviors like binge drinking or drug abuse.
As most of us know, emotional and behavioral contagion (see definition above) is a well-known fact. In other words, the people we hang out with on a regular basis have a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) influence on our moods and our actions. This study goes further by confirming that the people around us, especially our romantic and long-term partners, can add or detract from our good health. This has far-reaching implications as we age.
So how did Thom and my diet experiment work out in January? While neither of us saw a radical change in our health (we started out healthy so that didn’t change) we did feel it was a positive direction in our lives. Cutting back on sugar, processed foods, breads, and pastas is surely a positive move for everyone. And like I said, doing it together with my best friend made it both relatively easy and even enjoyable.
Valentine’s Day is often a celebration of love between two people who are just beginning to realize how love can influence their happiness. Perhaps it would be SMART for all of us to realize that those we are closely connect with are influenced mentally, emotionally and physically by not only our love, but our level of happiness. Simply put, instead of giving flowers or candy this year, maybe our feelings of well-being and joy are the greatest gifts we can offer those we love.