Having a romantic partner and children is often associated with higher reported levels of happiness and well-being, because having close relationships with others has been shown to make people feel more confident and secure. However, it turns out that we may be happiest when spending time with our friends rather than our families. This is what psychology professor Nathan Hudson found in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study involved a total of 410 participants who were asked to think back on time spent with their family or friends and rate the extent to which they felt several emotions (e.g., happiness, satisfaction, sense of meaning) during each episode, indicating who was present in each.
The result: participants reported higher levels of well-being while in the company of friends rather than their romantic partners or children. In fact, time spent with romantic partners predicted the lowest amount of happiness. This result was consistent with the finding of previous research that suggested that spending time with our closest partners can be psychological taxing. However, Hudson and his team decided to dig deeper into the data to better understand the results.
What You Do With Others Matters
The researchers found that when they controlled for the type of activity performed, the results changed. In his words:
“[I]ndividuals may perform greater numbers of potentially draining activities—such as providing care or performing household chores—while with family members. Similarly, people may engage in greater numbers of enjoyable leisure activities while with friends.”
For example, 65% of experiences reported with friends consisted of socializing. By contrast, socializing only represented 28% of the time spent with partners. When you statistically control for those activities, the presence of friends, partners, and children predict the same happiness boost. This might clarify why different relationships are associated with different emotional states, and reveal ways to improve our relationships with our romantic partners and children.
Global Versus Episodic Well-Being
Hudson and his team concluded that there is a distinction to be made between global well-being (i.e., life satisfaction) and the actual moods and emotions we experience in a given time (experiential well-being). Interacting with partners or family might not evoque the same positive emotions as with friends. However, the study indicates that spending greater amounts of time with romantic partners was indeed associated with increased global well-being. By contrast, time spent with friends resulted in higher experiential well-being but did not predict a greater level of global well-being.
What You Can Do:
Don’t let chores and other obligations crowd out quality time with your family. In Hudson’s words: "It's important to create opportunities for positive experiences with romantic partners and children -- and to really mentally savor those positive times. In contrast, family relationships that involve nothing but chores, housework, and childcare likely won't predict a lot of happiness."