Where does “Happy Wife Happy Life” come from?
The origin of “happy wife happy life” is a puzzle. Blogger John Rice attempted to trace its source without much success. Comedian Jeff Allen is convinced that he invented the phrase, and so is musician Gavin Rossdale. It’s also a bit of a puzzle what “happy wife happy life” means, but now two recent pieces of research provide both clear meanings and confirmation.
Why “Happy Wife Happy Life” is important
There are good reasons for psychologists to study how couples feel about long-term relationships. People with poor marital quality have worse physical and mental health, and marital conflict (including non-violent conflict) increases the risk of dying. Conversely, a good relationship with one’s spouse can offset the limitations of poor health and improve the overall quality of life.
Most research has been carried out on married heterosexual couples and has helped define the stereotypes of husbands as demanding and wives as giving. However, recent studies of gay and lesbian couples show that relationships between “demanders” and “givers” are quite common, and gender-independent. Properly translated, results from studying of married couples probably apply to many other relationships as well.
Psychological research is difficult!
Research that involves people is inherently difficult, because human beings are complex, varied and changeable. In addition, many of the things we want to know, such as the extent to which a food additive might cause cancer, are subtle effects.
This type of research requires a large-scale study, a costly proposition but one that a government agency or a professional organization will sometimes undertake. And once such a study is ongoing, it makes sense to extract as much information from it as possible, so you will see many research articles based on different cuts of the same large data base.
Four well-known long-term surveys are:
- The United States Census, dating from 1790, has provided the source material for much research in the social sciences.
- In womens’ health, a noteworthy survey is the Nurses’ Health Study, sponsored by a group of schools and hospitals at Harvard University. It started in 1976, has had 238,000 female participants and has provided data for hundreds of published research studies.
- The male counterpart of the Nurses’ Study is Harvard’s Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. Since 1986 it has collected data from 51,000 men and has also led to a large number of research publications.
- The Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) is a large-scale study managed by the University of Michigan for the U.S. Bureau of the Census. It started as a survey of poor families in 1966 and was expanded to include a cross-section of U.S. households of all income levels. Since it follows families as their members move away from their original households, to date 70,000 people have participated and over 2,000 research publications have resulted.
“Happy Wife Happy Life” research studies
There are two new research articles that speak to “happy wife happy life”:
– A report by James Iveniuk and colleagues at the University of Chicago that is discussed in a video and in a news release.
– A report whose lead author is Deborah Carr of Rutgers, with colleagues from the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California, which was featured by ScienceDaily and in an NJ.com interview.
The Carr article used the PSID data base described above, extracting data from detailed interviews with 394 couples with both parties at least 50 years old and one of them at least 60. The Iveniuk study took data from 953 couples aged 63 to 90, interviewed as part of a study conducted by the National Institute on Aging. In both studies, the couples had been together an average of almost 40 years.
Both the PSID data base used by Carr and the data used by Iveniuk included cohabiting heterosexual couples on the same basis as married couples. We will follow the terminology of the researchers and refer to “husbands” and “wives” interchangeably with cohabiting “men” and “women.”
OK, you might say, so what did the researchers learn from these studies?
The most revealing insights come from correlating the characteristics of one partner with the attitudes of the other partner. The two studies help us understand how husbands and wives each contribute to the success of long-term relationships.
Healthy Positive Husband, High Quality Marriage
The Iveniuk study found two characteristics of husbands that seem important if their wives are to rate the marriage as high quality:
– The man’s good health is crucial, because when the man is in poor health it places significant burdens on his female partner.
– The man also needs a quality that the researchers call “Positivity”: a combination of positive attitudes including openness to experience, conscientiousness and agreeableness.
Neither of these results applied when it was the woman whose health was impaired, or the woman who was less “Positive”: those characteristics for the woman did not seem to affect the man’s assessment of the success of the marriage or his overall happiness.
It was also found that men who measured high on neuroticism, or low on Positivity, were more likely to have spouses who rated the relationship as conflicted or poor quality.
Happy Wife, Happy (Husband’s) Life
The Carr study found that when the woman reports a happy marriage, the man is affected in two ways:
– The husband rates the relationship more positively; and
– The husband reports greater satisfaction with his life as a whole, even when he does not rate the marriage very highly. Happy wife happy life, indeed!
It’s known that health issues such as disability strongly depress people’s reported happiness. However, for men, marital quality is twice as important as health in making them happy! The researchers found that a 1-point increase in marital quality (on a 4-point scale) is associated with a 0.45 point increase in a man’s life satisfaction; whereas being disability free only leads to a 0.21-point boost in life satisfaction.
In addition, the researchers found that each person, regardless of gender, tends to rate both marriage quality and life satisfaction in the same direction, whether high or low.
Science Speculation: Out of the countless studies about marriage and relationships, we have discussed these two because they are current, significant and complementary, and because they help unravel the hidden meanings of “happy wife happy life.” These studies also offer results that, with only a little extrapolation, suggest practical applications.
Health. We each have many good reasons to take care of our health, including its impact on our quality of life as we get older. However, married men have yet one more reason to be healthy: their health directly impacts their wife’s overall happiness. In contrast, a woman’s health does not have much impact on her husband’s happiness.
Positivity. In addition to staying healthy, the most important characteristic a man can bring to a relationship is a positive attitude, including being open to new things, conscientious and agreeable.
Marital Quality. Just like health, everyone has good reasons to work for making a happy relationship. However, women have an additional reason: whatever they can do to be happy in their relationship also greatly enhances their partner’s overall life satisfaction, not only within but also outside the marriage. To the extent that the man’s life satisfaction encourages him to show “positivity,” it further increases the wife’s happiness. In this sense, “happy wife happy life” is not only true from the perspective of the husband, but signals a mutually supportive interaction between the partners.
From a simplistic point of view, we could say that the man’s job is to be healthy and to behave positively toward his partner; and the woman’s job is to be happy in the marriage. These factors work together to increase the quality of the marriage and the quality of life for both parties.
We should mention one caveat, which is well recognized by the researchers in both studies. These two studies were carried out on older couples, who had already shown good compatibility by staying together for a number of years. Their results might not directly apply to couples under 50 years of age.
On the other hand – younger couples who follow these precepts might very well enhance their chances of joining the population of happily married older folks!
Does happy wife happy life seem to make sense in your experience? What other factors do you feel are strongly correlated with happiness in and out of relationships?
Drawing Credit: jogdragoon, on openclipart.org