Happiness: who can really make you happy?

It may be an old and even outdated adage, but “Happy wife, happy life” now has some scientific backing to it.

New evidence from a study published in theJournal of Marriage and Family shows that the way women perceive the quality of their marriage matters for men’s life satisfaction. You read that correctly: How she feels about the relationship is linked to his overall happiness, even though the reverse effect appears much weaker—in other words, how he feels about the marriage does not substantially influence her life satisfaction. (Carr, Freedman, Cornman, & Schwarz, 2014)

As much as this study supports the “happy wife, happy life” adage and undercuts any modern attempts to rephrase it to “happy husband, happy life,” it also opens up new questions about what it means for a man or woman to be in any long-term romantic relationship.

Marital Quality, Well-being, and Life Satisfaction

Are you happy in your marriage? The judgment is clearly worth attention, because we know that relationship perceptions are tied to many aspects of your own and your partner’s life and well-being. While it has been widely understood that perceiving yourself as part of a close and companionable relationship is fundamentally linked to psychological health and well-being, we are just now beginning to understand how people’s experiences also connect to their partner’s well-being and overall happiness. 

To explore this question, Carr and colleagues (2014) studied the daily diaries of 361 heterosexual couples in the United States who had been married for an average of 39 years. Their work unravels how spousal factors can predict personal life satisfaction—in other words, they investigated patterns of dependency between husbands and wives’ overall life quality judgments and their spouses’ marital happiness, while controlling for other potential variables of influence.

It was in this way that they discovered the power of a wife’s marital evaluation. Very unhappily married men—those who, on average, rated their relationship 1.0 on a 6.0-point scale—also experienced very low lifesatisfaction only if their wives also rated their marriage quality as very poor. Unhappy husbands whose wives were actually happy in the marriage were essentially buffered in their own life satisfaction by their wives’ feelings: Happy wife, happy life.    

It appears that when women feel supported, understood, and appreciated by their partner—and judge their partner as responsive and calming—they boost their husbands’ overall life satisfaction, or at least their perception of it. Likewise, women who were unhappy in their marriage may be lowering their husbands’ general happiness.

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