THE BLOG

How Being Happy at Work Could Improve Your Marital Satisfaction, Too

05/18/2011 08:30 am ET | Updated Jul 18, 2011

Just a few months ago, Time reported that in 2010, fewer than half of American workers (45 percent) were satisfied with their jobs. This is the lowest percentage since 1987. And a recent American Psychological Association survey found that 36 percent of employees report chronic work-related stress regularly, and less than half feel valued at their job. Nearly a third (32 percent) were unhappy enough to say that they would look for another job within the next year.

If you are among these dissatisfied, stressed-out, undervalued workers, there's evidence that your unhappiness for 40 hours a week could be having a negative impact on your relationship. Well-known studies have shown a correlation between job dissatisfaction and unhappiness at home.

But here's a new finding that married employees will want to know about. My landmark study of marriage, which has been following and observing hundreds of couples for nearly a quarter of a century, found that there's also a positive spillover from work to marriage. In other words, people who are happy in their jobs often report being happy spouses, as well. In effect, job satisfaction can increase relationship happiness.

A recent conversation I had with a therapy client is a good example of this "happy employee" effect. Sherrie, a 35-year-old urban planner, was returning to work from maternity leave, and we were discussing the many stressors she was grappling with. I asked about her decision to go back to work after only eight weeks, and how that might contribute to her current stress level, especially as her husband had a good income and had offered her the option of staying at home with the baby. Without a beat, she replied, "Not a chance; I'd never give up that job! It's really challenging on so many levels -- but in a good way. I know it'll be hard with the baby, but the person I am at work is the person my husband fell in love with. We really need that back."

Sherrie was right. Being happy at work confers so many benefits on a marriage. But what if you aren't happy at your job? How do you increase job satisfaction so that your discontent doesn't spill over into your relationship at home?

Here are some strategies I recommend that can help you increase happiness in both arenas of your life -- work and home -- simultaneously:

Seek support and help from your spouse.

If you're having a problem at work, ask for advice from your partner. Research shows that the need for assistance is one of the three basic needs of all people in relationships (intimacy and reassurance of one's value are the other two). Seeking solutions to work-related problems together strengthens the couple bond and the feeling that "we're in this together." Moreover, because your partner knows you so well, he or she is likely to come up with valuable insights and feedback.

"Grow" in your job.

A recent, large-scale study in Harvard Business Review found that the number-one factor that keeps employees happy and motivated in their job is "making progress" -- the sense that they are provided with enough resources and time to excel at their job. Workers who seek fulfillment and stimulation during the workday tend to be happier individuals, and much of that happiness gets transferred to their partner at the end of the day.

Practice behaviors that relieve stress.

Numerous studies have documented a link between workplace stress and poor health. The two most common workplace stressors are feeling as if you haven't been heard or supported, and negative interpersonal work relationships. Find ways to express your needs, ask for assistance, and manage conflict at your job. Good health is sexy and attractive to a spouse, and so is an upbeat attitude. You won't have either of those if your job causes you to gain weight, lose sleep and develop stress-related symptoms like bad gut and hypertension.

Share your work life.

My study found that the happiest marriages were ones where partners felt that their spouse regularly disclosed information about his or her life, and did not keep secrets -- even details from work that might be deemed "boring." The upside for the worker, however, is that your work life becomes interwoven into your home life, which promotes a satisfying feeling of work-life balance and makes you happier overall.