Happiness is catching and spreads like the flu, according to a study that followed a whole community of people for 20 years. The effect of one happy person could ripple through three degrees of separation, researchers report. “It is sometimes said that you can’t be happier than your least happy child. It is truly amazing to discover that when you replace the word ‘child’ with ‘best friend’s neighbor’s uncle,’ the sentence is still true,” [Boston Globe] said psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who was not involved in the study. The researchers liken the pattern of happiness transmission to the spread of a virus: those with the most number of happy contacts are the mostly likely to catch the happy bug.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal, followed more than 4,700 people living in Framingham, Massachusetts from 1983 to 2003. The participants answered periodic questionnaires about their emotional well-being and listed the names of relatives, friends, and co-workers, many of whom were also participating in the study. Researchers found that happiness wasn’t scattered evenly throughout the population but instead seemed to spread through social networks. “Happiness is like a stampede,” said [co-author] Nicholas Christakis… “Whether you’re happy depends not just on your own actions and behaviors and thoughts, but on those of people you don’t even know” [AP].
Overlaying the data over a map showed clear geographical clusters of happiness. A next-door neighbor’s joy increased one’s chance of being happy by 34 percent, but a neighbor down the block had no effect. A friend living half a mile away was good for a 42 percent bounce, but the effect was almost half that for a friend two miles away. A friend in a different community altogether can win an Oscar without making you feel better [New York Times]. Certain types of relationships were more effective at spreading happiness, the researchers found. Surprisingly, the good mood of a next-door neighbor was more contagious than that of a live-in spouse. Also, co-workers seem immune to each other’s happiness, perhaps due to an atmosphere of competition in the workplace, the researchers suggest. Friends of the same gender were the most likely source of good cheer. There was also a temporal element: the effects of a happy encounter could linger for as long as a year and then faded.
Unhappiness was also contagious, but happily, to a lesser degree. Previous work by the same research team found similar social patterns of transmission for obesity and success in quitting smoking. But since this is the first study to look at how happiness spreads through groups over an extended period of time, some are skeptical about the validity of the results. In a separate study in the same journal, other researchers noted that many non-catching conditions, like acne, headaches, and height, would appear to follow the “social contagion effect” if not all compounding factors were taken into consideration.
But to end on a positive note: Co-author James H. Fowler says the study shows that whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a $5,000 raise. So at a time when we’re facing such economic difficulties, the message could be, ‘Hang in there. You still have your friends and family, and these are the people to rely on to be happy’ ” [Washington Post].
Image: flickr / Beau B