Happily Ever After?
In a recent Stanford course I was teaching, I made the point that our social relationships are crucial to happiness. The top 10% of the happiest people have one thing in common—it’s not that they live in sunny California or are on the Fortune 500 list. They report close satisfying relationships. A student raised his hand and said, “I’m in the midst of a divorce. Does this mean my happiness is doomed?” I decided to dig into the research to find out.
I examined the following questions: Will finding “the one” guarantee a happiness upswing? How much do relationships actually affect our happiness?
Many studies have examined this topic and in general, research supports that most individuals who are married experience higher levels of happiness than those who are not married. However, the connection is not so straightforward.
It is the quality of the marriage that is most strongly associated with higher levels of well-being. Problematic marriages bring emotional turmoil, while high quality marriages provide both psychological and physical protective factors. Research shows that this is especially true for women and older adults.
Is marriage making people happier or are happier people more likely to be married? A 2014 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the UK accounted for people’s levels of happiness before marriage. They found that even controlling for pre-marriage happiness levels, married people seemed to report higher levels of well-being. The authors found that being married was especially helpful during times of stress, when individuals could depend on their partner for emotional support. Couples who considered their spouse to be their best friend reported higher levels of life satisfaction.
Not surprisingly, happiness within marriages is reported to be the highest immediately following marriage, supporting the notion of the “honeymoon period.” Research has shown that this blissful period subsides after about 30 months, but the long-term benefits of marriage outlast this honeymoon phase. The UK study found that the protective factor of marriage was most noticeable during middle age. In general, life satisfaction follows a “U-shape” where happiness lessens throughout adulthood, reaching its lowest point in the late 40’s and then begins to rise again. The UK study found that the “U” is less steep for married people than for unmarried people. It appears that having social support from a spouse can help individuals navigate the stress of middle age with more ease than their unmarried counterparts.
Since higher levels of happiness depend on high quality marriages, I wanted to know what specific factors define these healthy unions. Research shows that the following qualities characterize high quality marriages:
– Commitment to one another over the long haul
– Positive communication
– Ability to resolve disagreements and handle conflicts well
– Emotional and physical safety in interaction
– Mutual respect
– Experiencing positive emotions together
– Providing emotional support and companionship
– Parents’ mutual commitment to their children
This inquiry grew into a two-part investigation. Next post will outline ways the research suggests we can improve the quality of our relationships, married or not.
Research on marriage, social connections, and the quality of our relationships highlight how much other people really do matter when it comes to our happiness, as well as the happiness of those around us. The correlation between happiness and relationships is bi-directional—not only do high quality relationships make us happier, but happier people are more likely to have higher quality relationships. However, having quality connections is something that requires purposeful attention. It has been shown that the more people invest in their relationships, the more valuable these relationships become. What does the research tell us about how to improve relationships?
1. Cultivate kindness and compassion. Studies have shown that individuals who exhibit higher levels of these attributes also rate having higher quality relationships.
2. Develop good listening skills. Research shows that the way we listen and empathize to what is being said affects how our partner feels towards us. It is important to listen in a responsive rather than reactive way.
3. Communicate! Just as important as it is to listen to others, it is important to skillfully express our hopes, desires, fears, and needs. Others can’t know what we want and need if we do not openly share with them. Research has shown that healthy communication facilitates closeness.
4. Practice gratitude. Studies have shown that cultivating and expressing gratitude within a relationship can enhance the quality of friendships and marriages.
5. Experience positive emotions together! Researchers have demonstrated that couples who engage in novel and exciting activities report higher levels of satisfaction.
A major tenet from the field of positive psychology, which is the science of wellbeing, is that social connections are paramount to well-being. Whether these connections are with romantic partners, families, friends, colleagues, or communities, the quality of our relationships with those around us directly contribute to our happiness. Chris Peterson, one of the founders of positive psychology, said the field of positive psychology could be summed up in three simple words, “Other people matter.”
Bao, K. J. Making It Last: Combating Hedonic Adaptation in Romantic Relationships Katherine Jacobs Bao Sonja Lyubomirsky University of California, Riverside.
Carr, D., Freedman, V. A., Cornman, J. C., & Schwarz, N. (2014). Happy Marriage, Happy Life? Marital Quality and Subjective Well‐being in Later Life. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(5), 930-948.
Grover, S., & Helliwell, J. F. (2014). How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness (No. w20794). National Bureau of Economic Research.
Lorber, M. F., Erlanger, A. C. E., Heyman, R. E., & O’Leary, K. D. (2014). The honeymoon effect: does it exist and can it be predicted?. Prevention Science, 16(4), 550-559.
Staton, J., & Ooms, T. (2008, June). “Something Important is Going on Here!” Making Connections Between Marriage, Relationship Quality and Health. National Healthy Marriage Resource Center Final Report based on an invitational conference held the Wingspread Conference Center, Racine, Wisconsin.
Vanassche, S., Swicegood, G., & Matthijs, K. (2013). Marriage and children as a key to happiness? Cross-national differences in the effects of marital status and children on well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(2), 501-524.