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Happiness is Contagious

Average Happiness Network:  yellow is happy, blue sad, green in-between

Average Happiness Network: yellow is happy, blue sad, green in-between

Happy people spread their cheer to people around them and to through them to an even larger network of connections.  Being surrounded by many happy people makes it more likely that someone will be happy in the future.

Researchers studying emotional connections and happiness in a large group of people over twenty years discovered that happiness not just due to happy people tending to gather with each other, but was a true contagion spreading from one person to another.  Analysis found that the clusters of happiness and unhappiness were not due to chance, but truly driven by networks of people in close proximity to each other. 

Happy people tended to affect others with happiness more than unhappy people spread unhappiness to networks around them.  Over time happy people were three times as likely to remain happy as they were to become unhappy.

As part of the Framingham Heart Study, more than 5,100 people and their close social ties were studied.  The entire network consisted of more than 12,000 people tied together in more than 50,000 relationships within the Framingham Study.  Relationships included friends, family, spouses, neighbors, and coworkers.  Clusters of happy and unhappy people were found throughout the network.

The study examined the how different close relationships influenced the happiness of an individual:

  • Living next door to a happy person increased the chance that the individual would be happy by 34 percent, but there was no effect from other people on the block.
  • Having a friend within 1 mile increased happiness chances by 25%, friends beyond that distance had no effect.
  • A happy spouse increased happiness by 8 percent.
  • Brothers or sisters living within a mile improved chances for happiness by 14 percent, but only if they lived that close to the individual.
  • Coworkers had no effect.

The researchers used a simple scale to measure happiness, asking study participants if during the last week:

  • I felt hopeful about the future.
  • I was happy
  • I enjoyed life
  • I felt that I was just as good as other people.

Happy people answered yes to all four questions, a result that correlated well with a more complex score measuring how strong each answer was and how often the person felt that way during the past week.

Reflecting on their research, James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis wrote,

Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people. The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network. Happiness, in other words, is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice but is also a property of groups of people. Indeed, changes in individual happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large scale structure in the network, giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals.

SOURCE: Fowler et al. British Medical Journal, December 4, 2008.

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