Happiness is Contagious

6 Dec

img_0671This week, findings will be released from some long-term research on the levels of happiness within one’s social network.

The finding: happiness is contagious.

People who live close to and interact with happy people are happier themselves. Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard Medical School and James H. Fowler, an associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego asked 5000 people and their social networks about their happiness, over a 20-year period, and the results are fascinating. Happiness appears to spread readily through communities of geographically connected family and friends.

  • Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself.
  • A happy friend of a friend increases your odds of happiness by 9.8%, and even your neighbor’s sister’s friend can give you a 5.6% boost.
  • A happy friend who lives within a half-mile makes you 42% more likely to be happy yourself. If that same friend lives two miles away, his impact drops to 22%. Happy friends who are more distant have no discernible impact, according to the study.
  • Similarly, happy siblings make you 14% more likely to be happy yourself, but only if they live within one mile.
  • Next-door neighbors who are happy make you 34% more likely to be happy too, but no other neighbors have an effect, even if they live on the same block.
  • The people at the center of the social graph (the popular ones) are happier.  (Well maybe this last result is not so ground-breaking.)

Interestingly, the one exception was the work environment.  Happy co-workers do NOT make you happier (unless the co-workers are friends).  I can see competition in the work environment distorting normal happiness dynamics.  And in my experience at many companies, employees are not encouraged to fully express happiness (or sadness, fear, skepticism or any real emotion) in the work environment, thereby preventing their happiness from spreading.  (Reading this makes me so thankful for the culture we have collectively created at Scout Labs where we not only encourage the expression of unique personalities, but we are also truly friends!)

This is being seen as ground-breaking research, because happiness is often thought of as an exceedingly individualistic state – as if happiness is a thermostat which is pretty well set when you are born.  It’s also controversial in its claim that physical proximity is what matters most – even if we say we say we stay “connected” with phones and emails and webcams and the like. “We suspect emotions spread through frequency of contact,” Fowler said. As a result, he said, people who live too far away to be seen on a regular basis don’t have much effect.

Why would happiness be infectious?  Evolution may have encouraged it if it helped hominids and early humans enhance their social bonds so they could form successful groups, the researchers said.

Part of what’s interesting to me, from a pure research perspective, is how they re-created the social network.  They started with nearly 5000 research participants, then rounded out their networks by using home addresses to locate neighbors and employment information to identify co-workers. Altogether, they constructed a social network that included 12,067 study volunteers who were linked to each other through 53,228 ties.  These same researchers have used a similar methodology to show that obesity and smoking spread among groups of friends and relatives.

So when you head home tonight, remember that the mood you arrive with will be contributing to the mood of not only your husband and your kids, but of your kids’ friends and your next-door neighbor!  Be sure to put on some really good music on the way home.


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