March 22, 2005 -- The old saying about marriage that "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" is getting some scientific support.
Cultivating your own happiness could make your spouse happier, too.
"A married man is significantly more satisfied with his life when his wife becomes more satisfied with hers, and vice versa," says British researcher Nick Powdthavee.
In fact, the positive impact of having a happy spouse can offset major problems such as unemployment or hospitalization, he says.
However, there's a twist. The happiness data hinges on marriage. Unmarried couples living together didn't show the same pattern, says Powdthavee.
Happy Husband, Happy Wife
It's not easy to turn an ethereal emotion like happiness into concrete science. But Powdthavee, who works in the University of Warwick's economics department, gave it his best shot.
He took information from the 1996-2000 British Household Panel Survey. That included 9,700 married people and some 3,300 unmarried people living with their partner. All were 16-65 years old.
The survey's topics included life satisfaction, education, income, and health.
Based on those answers, Powdthavee used a complicated mathematical formula and principles from psychology to parse the nitty-gritty details of happiness. He found that in married couples, happiness can overflow from one spouse to their partner.
When a husband or wife notches up their own happiness level, the positive impact on their spouse is big, says Powdthavee. How big? Here's how he puts it:
"It is significantly greater than the effect of owning a house outright; it can completely offset the non-[financial] cost of unemployment; it is equal to not having to spend around two months in the hospital last year," says Powdthavee.
That's based on a 30% increase in happiness in the spouse not facing those problems. In other words, happiness can be contagious -- in a good way -- in marriage, even for a partner facing burdens.
"This paper has shown that married people have become more satisfied with their life over the years merely because their spouses have become happier with theirs," says Powdthavee.
Some people, by nature, are happier than others. The results take that into account.
Unmarried Couples -- Not so Fast
The same results weren't seen among unmarried couples who lived together. The reasons for that aren't clear. Perhaps unmarried couples are less committed or tend to focus more on themselves, instead of on their partner's well-being over time, says Powdthavee.
He says this is consistent with studies showing a higher break-up rate and eventual marriage failure by those cohabiting with a partner compared with a spouse.
It's certainly possible to be happy (and concerned about others) inside or outside of marriage. And as the U.S. divorce rate shows, marriage doesn't guarantee happiness.
The findings were presented in Nottingham, U.K., at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference.