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5 surprising benefits of earning a college degree

What's the benefit of a college degree? Higher earnings and career opportunity, to start. A bachelor's degree can earn you $1 million more over a lifetime than a high school diploma, according to recent numbers by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. That's about $500 more per week in your pocket, according to the latest U.S. Department of Labor estimates.

But wait -- there's more. College degrees can do more for you than just improve your bottom line. From a healthy body to a sharp mind, associate and bachelor's degrees have the potential to improve your life in more ways than you might expect.

5 surprising benefits of a college degree

Here are five of the top non-financial benefits of a higher degree:

1. Good health

A college degree can make you healthier. The March 2012 issue of the American Journal of Public Health reports that returning students who complete a degree after age 25 are healthier and less depressed in midlife than their peers without degrees.

This is just the latest study to tout the health benefits of a higher degree. The Education Resources Information Center's influential 2002 article, The Value of a College Degree, found that earning a college degree was associated with better health for degree holders and their children.

2. Happiness

The college graduate is more likely to see his or her glass as half full. A classic 1992 study by researchers Elchanan Cohn and Terry Geske found that "college graduates appear to have a more optimistic view of their past and future personal progress."

College grads also have more fun. They are more likely to make time for hobbies and leisure activities, according to research by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

3. Family harmony

Children benefit when their parents have a college degree. Cohn and Geske found that children of college-educated parents were healthier than those whose parents hadn't graduated college, even when controlling for higher earnings. College graduates are reportedly better equipped to prepare their children for the future, fostering their cognitive and emotional well-being.

This is especially good news for returning students with children, who may find themselves sacrificing some family time now to pursue the degree. In addition to laying the foundation for better health and well-being in the future, college-bound parents can serve as positive role models for their children while still in school.

4. Strong relationships

Marriages thrive with education too. Wharton economist Betsey Stevenson analyzed demographic data from 1950 to 2008 and found that contemporary college-educated women are more likely to marry, less likely to divorce and more likely to describe their marriages as happy, no matter what their income, compared to women without a college degree. Love and equality also prevail in the college-educated marriage. Six percent of college graduates married for money, compared with 20 percent of non-graduates. College graduates were also more likely to turn to their spouse as an equal partner rather than a provider.

5. Smarter decisions

Those college-level analytical skills aren't just for your resume and future employer. You'll use them to solve everyday problems and make rational decisions. According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, college graduates make better decisions when they shop for consumer goods. They also save more money, and plan their finances better. College trains you to think independently and rely on reason rather than prejudice. These skills serve you well whether you are looking for the best deal on a used car, running your own business or deciding how to spend your free time.

Your higher post-graduate income won't buy you love or happiness -- but your college education could get you there. The connections you make and knowledge you gain while in college may just help you live happily ever after.