Love and money most closely linked to quality of life

By Cheryl Walker
February 17, 2004

Marriage and finances are the most important predictors for overall life quality, a new study finds.

A happy marriage is most closely linked with overall life satisfaction, says William Fleeson, associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. Financial stability is the second best predictor for a high-quality life.

Fleeson analyzed national survey data to determine Americans’ overall quality of life and assess the quality of life experienced in areas such as work, health and family. The surveyed people ranged in age from 25 to 75. The original survey was conducted by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development.

“These findings present a broad and descriptive overview of the quality of life in America,” Fleeson says.

If a person evaluated himself as doing well or poorly in an area, Fleeson then looked to see what connection — positive or negative — that had to overall life satisfaction.

For example, he says, some individuals can easily experience a high-quality life despite an unsuccessful career, so the connection between career and life satisfaction is not as significant. But, few indicate that they are happy with the overall quality of their life if they have an unhappy marriage.

“These results argue that marriage or a marriage-like close relationship is the most important domain for a high-quality life,” Fleeson says. “More than any other area, it is rare to have a high-quality life without having a high-quality close relationship. If one’s marriage is going well, one is likely to experience one’s life overall as complete.”

The quality of a person’s financial situation was more closely related to overall life quality than any other factor except marriage, he says. This was more true for survey participants with low rather than with high income levels.

Other specific areas considered were children, health, work, sexuality and contributions to others.

Fleeson was surprised to find that marriage was much more closely tied to life satisfaction than children. “In past studies, the two areas have been lumped together as ‘family,’ he says. “This study separates the two and suggests that the two domains —marriage and children — operate very differently.”

Health — fourth on the list — was much lower in importance than might be anticipated, Fleeson says. “Many individuals manage to lead satisfying lives despite having very poor health.”

Sexuality was associated even less with overall life quality than health. And, contributions to others — caring and doing for others — did not seem to be linked to overall life satisfaction much at all.

Fleeson said he sees possible applications for this study both on personal and societal levels.

“We often have to make decisions in our lives about where to invest our energy, be it family, career or health,” Fleeson says. “The study suggests that individuals’ investment in maintaining their relationships and their financial stability are more richly rewarded than are efforts in other domains.”

The study also has implications for American society.

“As a nation, we also have to make decisions about where to invest limited resources, such as tax dollars,” Fleeson says. “This research may suggest that we invest those resources in marriage to a greater degree than is currently the case.”

The results of Fleeson’s study have been published as a chapter in the book, “How Healthy are We?: A National Study of Well-Being at Midlife,” edited by O. G. Brim, C. D. Ryff and R. C. Kessler and published by University of Chicago Press in February.

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