A Lifetime of Relationships Affects Life Satisfaction in Older Adults

Being married has been shown to have benefits for older adults’ well-being. New research suggests the relationships one has throughout life have a role to play.

Researchers used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal study that has followed a sample of Americans since 1968, to examine participants’ marital histories from age 18 to 60. This included 3,530 adults over age 60 (average age 66). This information was compared with participants’ current satisfaction with their life as a whole.

Overall, participants’ marital histories clustered into three categories: those who spent the majority of their adult life consistently married to one person, consistently single, or transitioning in and out of relationships. The consistently married older adults reported significantly higher life satisfaction than older adults in the other two groups. Interestingly, older adults who were consistently single or had inconsistent relationships reported similar levels of life satisfaction. The analyses also controlled for education and gender, two characteristics that are generally associated with type of marital history.

Although life satisfaction was higher for those who were consistently married, the difference from the other groups was relatively small. Even so, it may be worthwhile for adults in either of these categories to engage in other meaningful activities, to provide a boost for life satisfaction. Both older and younger adults can benefit from doing this.

Life satisfaction, sometimes used as a measure of one’s overall happiness, has been consistently associated with benefits to health and well-being. Past research has shown marriage to have similar benefits, and this study shows current marital status does not tell the whole story. Spouses can be a source of support and social interaction in older age, but the relationships one has had throughout life appear to have an overall impact on life satisfaction as well.


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Purol MF, Keller VN, Oh J, Chopik WJ, and Lucas RE. Loved and lost or never loved at all? Lifelong marital histories and their links with subjective well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology (2020); Ahead of print.

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