1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Psychology: Happy partner, longer life?

May 20, 2019

When your partner is content, you can be sure of pleasant company. But not only that — a study suggests when your partner's happy, you live longer too. So what's to do if you live with a sourpuss?

A couple in bed: A pouting womand and a grumpy man
Image: picture-alliance

Imagine these two types: One happy, one not.

First: The archetypal couch potato. He only ever gets up to smoke a cigarette, because he has to go outside. And when he eats, it's a pre-packed TV dinner. Why? He's unhappy. Everything annoys him: His job, his friends, life in general.

Second: Mr. Positive. He loves the outdoors, likes to meet up with friends, and he's always enthusiastic about new things. He loves his life. He says life is beautiful. 

 Read more: Workplace feedback doesn't have to crush you

You can be one or the other, or somewhere in-between. Either way, in a relationship, the happinessor unhappiness of one person will sooner or later rub off on the other — potentially with far-reaching consequences.

According to a study by Tilburg University in the Netherlands, a happy person can even prolong his or her partner's life.

I am me and you are you!

Everybody experiences emotional ups and downs from time to time. But it's important not to let yourself get pulled down by your partner's mood swings, not every time. 

You might ask yourself, "How can I look away when it makes me angry and sad to see him slouch on the couch?"

"The first thing you can do is make a clear distinction between 'you' and 'I'," says psychologist and couples therapist Hans-Georg Lauer .

His advice sounds simple, but it's not that easy, especially in romantic relationships where we want to share our feelings and be one, together.

To understand where one's own sphere begins and that of another person ends is a very conscious process, says Lauer. And a very important one.

People who realize that their partner's dissatisfaction is not automatically their own can protect themselves from emotional roller coasters. It's easier then to acknowledge or accept the unhappiness of the other person, says Lauer. 

And who doesn't want to be acknowledged and accepted — even when they are in a state of misery? 

Read more: Being grateful is good for our mental health — even if it's hard sometimes

Infographic on depression rates in Germany (DW)

Maintain your happiness!

Retreating to the couch, pulling the curtains and a long face won't help anyone. 

If you're happy, you may as well try to stay happy. 

"If we take a step back, that makes perfect sense," says Lauer.

But it can be hard to see that sometimes. And sometimes it's the things we've experienced in our own lives that can get in the way of our thinking straight.

"So the question is: What did we learn from our parents or carers?" says the psychologist.

It starts at an early age. Some of us are taught to feel bad when someone else is down. Or we feel guilty if we're happy and they are unhappy.

But that's what Lauer advises us to overcome.

"Be happy if you're happy and content. And work at being even happier," Lauer advises. 

Happiness is contagious. It's the best way to help a grumpy guy on a couch.

Read more: Psychology: What are anxiety disorders?

What's going on?

"It's important to show a certain amount of mindfulness," says Lauer, "to understand exactly what's going on and, if possible, to talk about it."

But it can be tricky.
When Lauer says "talk about it" he doesn't mean trying to talk the other person back into a more cheerful mood by offering trivial advice or fortune-cookie wisdom.

"It's about listening to each other's concerns without prejudice or passing judgement," the psychologist says.

If your partner talks, complains, or scolds you, just leave it at that.

Just listen.

Such an approach can also help you protect yourself.

Every argument or discussion about the validity or nonsense of the other person's bad thoughts can lead to your becoming more involved, Lauer warns. And the boundaries between "I" and "you" quickly become blurred again.

Silence is golden

But what if I am convinced I know exactly what my partner should do to free himself of his miserable mood? 

"Tips and advice can intensify a person's unhappiness," says Lauer. 

Lauer says that's because your advice will be based on your own interpretation of your partner's mood, and that can be miles away from his or her perceived reality.

As a result, your partner may feel neither accepted nor understood, and their mood will continue. And that may ultimately bring you down, too.

Read more: E-cigarettes can cause heart attacks, vascular diseases and depression: study

Smoker drinking beer
Reasons to be cheerful: Even when your partner's down, try not to go down with himImage: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/McPhoto/M. Begsteiger

Not what you say but the way you say it

No one is destined for unhappiness. But when a gloomy mood persists, even the most patient partner can find themselves at risk.

That's where so-called "I" messages can be key, says Lauer. 

If you say you need to talk about the other person's problems, because you want a closer relationship, that's one way.

But it's different from telling your partner to get themselves together because they are making you unhappy.

"It depends on how you say it," says Lauer.

Helper syndrome?

A relationship with a chronically dissatisfied person promises little happiness. 

So it may be worth asking why you chose that partner in the first place. This person who feels like a victim and whom you feel you have to help constantly. 

Hans-Georg Lauer says this clearly speaks for an imbalance in the relationship to which both partners contribute.

"Perhaps you get some satisfaction from helping," he says.

Do you? 

You have to be able to look at yourself critically to answer a question like that, and few can do it.

You may, suggests Lauer, need help from a therapist yourself.

It pays for everyone to invest a little time in their happiness.

The bottom line is that happy people can have a positive effect on their environment.

And that happiness alone may be enough to inspire happiness in other people, even in the grumpy soulmate on your couch. 

Read more: You can actually train your "humor muscle"

DW journalist Julia Vergin
Julia Vergin Senior editor and team lead for Science online.