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New evidence: The flip side of social connection

Our recent study has shown that loneliness is the most detrimental life condition. We can barely live without each other, however sharing your life with someone has a price. Despite protecting us from social isolation, being in a relationship negatively affects our happiness by exposing us to the suffering experienced by the people we care about.


In a previous, article we described how loneliness emerged as the leading cause of unhappiness for adults in Europe. This conclusion is a clear testimony to how we as people need each other, and that we first and foremost are social beings. However, while loneliness is the price, we pay for being socially excluded or lacking good relationships, we cannot free ourselves from grief and unhappiness by feeling tied to other people. When we live a socially connected life, our quality of life is highly dependent on what is happening around us and with the people we care about.

That we become unhappy from seeing the ones we love and care for hurt, is in no way new. But that we can quantify these experiences is. And that is exactly what we have achieved in our new report 'Long and Happy Lives: The Future of Wellbeing in an Aging Society’. In this report, we focus on the link between subjective wellbeing and 26 adverse life conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, unemployment, physical inactivity, divorce, cancer, loneliness, and more. Our analysis is largely based on survey data from more than 115,000 respondents over the age of 50 in Europe. We estimate wellbeing burdens associated with each condition in terms of “Wellbeing Adjusted Life Years (WALY)” lost. But in addition to calculating how much wellbeing an individual lose to a certain life condition, we also calculate the loss on the partners.

It’s worse to be the partner of an Alzheimer’s patient than to experience a stroke yourself

In the figure below we consider the wellbeing trajectories of older adults experiencing 9 of the 26 adverse conditions, and their partners. We consider average changes in life satisfaction every two years for both affected adults and their partners, normalized to a baseline level recorded six years prior (t-6) to the event itself (t=0), and carried through until up to six years later (t+6).

In almost all cases, we find that partners’ wellbeing levels fluctuate in tandem with those directly affected. For example, in the year of the event (t=0), the life satisfaction of adults who suffer a heart attack is reduced by an average of 0.312 points on a scale from 0 to 10. At the same time, partners of patients with heart attacks also experience an average decline in life satisfaction of 0.226 points.

In addition, partners of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia actually seem to experience a larger average decline in life satisfaction than some individuals do as a result of their disease. It’s for instance worse to be the partner of an Alzheimer’s patient than to experience a stroke yourself – or even to have Alzheimer’s yourself. Yet the difference between patient and partner wellbeing for Alzheimer’s should be interpreted with some caution as it is within the margin of error.

Relationships are simultaneously a benefit and a burden

Despite the protective effect of relationships on loneliness, which we have found to be the most detrimental life condition on happiness, having a partner is not the blueprint for a life of exclusive happiness. When the one we are in a relationship with suffers, our happiness is also negatively impacted. Being connected to another human is one of the most fundamental factors for our happiness, but that level of connection means that the difficulties faced by our loved one, are faced by us too. Yet, in the grand equation of happiness, this is the price we pay to live a good, meaningful life.

Our opinion: Healthcare prioritization must rely on more than patient burdens

While it may be unsurprising that people experience declines in wellbeing alongside their partners when faced with challenging life events, these sorts of knock-on effects are often difficult to measure and conceptualize. As a result, they are generally left unaccounted for in medical treatment protocols and political decision-making. As populations age, more caregiving responsibilities will likely fall on relatives and loved ones. It, therefore, becomes vital to ensure that their wellbeing is accounted for, prioritized, and protected in public policy and healthcare decision-making. And for this purpose, a metric like WALY can be extremely beneficial.

“Caregiver burdens continue to be a major theme in debates surrounding health and welfare. Aging populations put increased pressure on public spending, and ultimately may cause that more caregiving responsibilities will fall on partners and family members.” - Anu Siren, Senior Researcher, Danish Center for Social Science Research (VIVE)

One of the most important benefits of adopting a wellbeing approach is that these life satisfaction changes can be converted in WALYs and compared with other life conditions and circumstances. We for instance find, that partners of patients with Alzheimer’s and other dementias lose 0.149 WALYs within the first four years of the diagnosis, and partners of patients with depression lose 0.101 WALYs within the same timeframe.

The writer Terry Tempest Williams once wrote, “an individual doesn’t get cancer, a family does.” In fact, we find this to be true of almost every adverse life condition we consider. It is time for medical decision-makers and healthcare providers to start taking these realities into account.

About the study

Long and Happy Lives: The Future of Wellbeing in an Aging Society is a cross-national study based on data on more than 115,000 respondents from 18 European countries. It is authored by Michael Birkjær and Micah Kaats from The Happiness Research Institute. The report is commissioned by DaneAge (A Danish not-for-profit organization with more than 900,000 members).

Read the report


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