Happy people make their partners healthier. Just look at a Singapore couple

Couples, like Colin Teo and wife Ho Joo Kah who are positive and optimistic enjoy better cognitive health and mental wellbeing.
Colin Teo

Colin Teo is about as positive and optimistic as they come.

His wife of 17 years, Ho Joo Kah, describes Teo as a “half glass full” type of man. She says it’s his sunny nature and upbeat attitude that have helped the Singaporean couple and their four children navigate the challenges they’ve experienced together.

“Whatever my worry, Colin always listens to me and encourages me to look on the bright side,” says Ho, 47.

“As logical and practical as he is, he somehow still manages to find the blessing or humour in a problem, and no matter how difficult a day I’m having, he always reminds me that we have a lot to be thankful for.

“His positive approach to life and unwavering support for me are, I believe, a big part of why we enjoy a close and loving relationship – and why I’m a happy wife.”

“When Joo Kah is happy, I’m happy,” says Teo, 48, a urologist. “In a marriage, you’re bound to experience rough patches, so it’s important for both partners to be positive and hopeful for each other. If you can’t bring joy to your partner or encourage them to believe in anything good, how can you have a fulfilling relationship?”

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Ho, a former teacher, left her career to manage Teo’s office.

“When we first started the practice, it wasn’t easy because I’d been a teacher for so long and hadn’t done anything like manage a business before,” she says. “I had to learn many things from scratch and work triply hard, but it was important for me to support Colin the way he’d always supported me.”

Teo says: “From a young age, I’ve understood that we can control how we think about and approach our problems. It’s sometimes difficult to feel positive, but in such moments I tell myself that not everything is within my control. I also try to have faith that whatever I’m dealing with will work out fine in the end.”

Having a positive life partner doesn’t just improve the state and quality of your relationship; according to a study from Michigan State University in the United States, it also fosters strong mental health in old age.

The researchers concluded that individuals who are optimistic contribute to their partner’s health, staving off the risk factors leading to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline as they grow old together. The results of the study, which followed nearly 4,500 heterosexual couples for up to eight years, were published in 2019 in the Journal of Personality .

“We found that when you look at the risk factors for what predicts things like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, a lot of them are (to do with) living a healthy lifestyle,” said study co-author William Chopik.

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“Maintaining a healthy weight and physical activity are large predictors. There are some physiological markers, as well. It looks like people who are married to optimists tend to score better on all of those metrics.”

Being married to an optimistic person often translates to a healthier environment at home, which might explain the reduced risk of cognitive decline, the researchers added.

How satisfied we feel in our relationship also has a significant correlation with our mental wellbeing, says Camilla O’Connor, a Hong Kong-based clinical and counselling psychologist. So partners who have a positive perspective on their relationship not only promote a strong relationship, they also directly impact the mental health of their partners.

“We are social beings and our connection with our partner, our family, our friends and our community directly impacts our sense of well-being,” she says.

“Couples that emphasise the good times, accentuate successes, underscore their partner’s positive characteristics and operate in the relationship from a position of cherishing their partners are likely to have high relationship satisfaction and, in turn, greater wellbeing.

“Happy couples hold a positive perspective of their partner. They turn towards your needs and you feel you can turn towards them when you’re burned out or stressed because they are a place of comfort and safety,” O’Connor says.

It’s important that we feel supported, appreciated and loved in our relationships, she adds. A partner with a negative perspective may engage in destructive communication styles such as defensiveness, criticism and withdrawal. As a result, they may have difficulty turning towards the relationship and the partner may feel dismissed and lonely.

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While a strong, positive relationship supports us as we try to reach personal goals and satisfy our aspirations, a negative one can lead to emotional disengagement.

We may feel that our partner does not have our back. This may cause stress and lead to a sense of helplessness and isolation, which can harm our mental well-being, O’Connor says.

“Of course, a relationship is dynamic, so it’s important for both partners to be united in creating a secure relationship – one that promotes positive interactions and focuses on the positive traits of the other partner and the relationship,” she adds.

Over the years, Ho says she’s learned to be a more positive person. And it’s because of her husband’s support that she’s more confident and resilient than she used to be.

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“I sometimes get fearful when I have to make a big decision, confront a problem or step outside my comfort zone, but knowing that Colin believes in my abilities makes me feel like … I can get through it,” she says.

Like many parents, she worries about family finances, her health and her husband’s, and that of her four children – aged 17, 15, 11 and nine. She particularly worries about their academic progress.

“One of our kids had a hard time adjusting in school and was being bullied … our child was depressed, had emotional outbursts and didn’t want to attend school. Colin and I were heartbroken; we dropped everything so that we could be there for our child. This brought our whole family closer together.

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“This crisis lasted about a year. The whole time, Colin and I barely slept. We’d break down together and then try to pick each other back up. Through this, our marriage grew stronger. I’m happy to say that our child is now back at school and thriving.

“I also make the effort to lift Colin up when he feels down, the way he does for me, by using words of encouragement and kindness.

“He’s opened my eyes to what it means to have courage, patience and hope, and he’s taught me how to let negative feelings go and make space for positive ones.

“His optimism is contagious.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.