For years, people have assumed their happiness was tied to things like personal success, good health, inner peace, or perhaps the ability to finally fit into a pair of size 4 jeans.
Now new research suggests a person’s happiness — or lack thereof — may actually depend on something else entirely: their spouse.
According to a study in the latest issue of the American Psychological Association’s journal Developmental Psychology, a person’s individual happiness is closely tied with that of their spouse — at least when it comes to long-term married couples.
Happiness waxes and wanes
“What we saw over a long period of time is that if one spouse changed in terms of increasing happiness, the other spouse’s happiness would go up,” says Christiane Hoppmann, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study. “And if there was a dip in happiness, this dip would also affect the respective spouse.
Data for the happiness study was gleaned from the Seattle Longitudinal Study which, since 1956, has followed more than 6,000 individuals, tapping them for insights into their life satisfaction, personality, and health issues. Researchers at UBC, the University of Washington and Penn State sifted through the data to find responses from 178 married couples — some together as long as 35 years — and compared their happiness ratings.
For better or for worse, the couples’ happiness jibed.
Hoppmann says this new research could help future studies better understand the underpinnings of what actually makes a person happy.
“Oftentimes, large surveys will ask individuals of different ages ‘How happy are you?’ and ask other kinds of things that might contribute to happiness,” she says. “What we’ve shown is that when you ask people about their happiness, you need to involve significant others, meaningful others who share important experiences, who live at the same place, who might be stressed by similar stressors.”
But the research also brings up additional questions.
“Right now, we know that happiness is tied in marital relationships,” says Hoppmann. “But we don’t know yet whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. We can’t tell if one spouse lifts up the other when there’s trouble or whether one spouse drags the other down. It could be both.”
Ups and downs
Silvana Clark, a 57-year-old professional speaker from Bellingham, Wash., says it’s usually been the former when it comes to her 33-year marriage.
“I’d say 90 percent of the time we’re both upbeat,” she says “But there are times when we’re down. When he’s kind of down, I pick him up a little bit and when I get to feeling down, he does the same for me.”
Rochelle Peachy, a 46-year-old entrepreneur from Orlando, Fla., says she experienced the opposite effect in her first marriage (she’s been happily remarried for 10 years).
“My ex-husband and I were together for seven years and he was very moody,” she says. “He would come into the house miserable and would just schlump around. And I’d be like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he’d be like ‘Nothing.’ It would drive me crazy. He would have this grumpy face and I wouldn’t know why and would keep asking. Until in the end, I didn’t care what was wrong.”
Hoppmann says while her study solely focused on long-term married couples, she is curious what her findings might mean with regard to people who divorce or who stay single.
“It’s a key question in a world where not all relationships last,” she says. “We’ve looked at a certain group of individuals who happen to be long-term married and this is what we found. But it’s only the first piece of the puzzle. It’s quite possible that this phenomenon could happen in friendships or with individuals who share a lot of joint experiences. But it’s pure speculation at this point.”
Up to the individual?
Alan Clark, a 59-year-old property manager (and husband of Silvana Clark) says he’s not all surprised to learn that long-term married couples’ happiness waxes and wanes together.
“I’ve seen where couples will grow alike as they grow older,” he says. “They’ll have the same mannerisms and will almost start to look similar after being married a long time.”
But he also believes true happiness is, in the end, up to the individual.
“I figured out early in our relationship that I was not responsible for my wife’s happiness,” he says. “I was responsible for setting up all the conditions for her to be happy – being kind, respectful, interesting, doing the things she likes to do, etc. But there’s nothing I can really do to force her into happiness. And the same goes for her.
“It’s not her job to make me happy,” he says. “She can lay down all the circumstances for me to be happy. But it’s my responsibility to have happiness within my heart.”