New research shows that happiness isn’t just an individual phenomenon; we can catch happiness from friends and family members like an emotional virus.
When just one person in a group becomes happy, researchers were able to measure a three-degree spread of that person’s cheer.
In other words, our moods can brighten thanks to someone we haven’t even met.
“Especially in the United States, we’re very used to thinking of ourselves as rugged individuals. But even very small things that happen to us have big impacts on dozens and hundreds of other people,” says James Fowler, a University of California, San Diego, political scientist, who co-authored the study with Harvard University medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis. “The things that we do and the things that we feel are going to reverberate throughout our social network.”
On average, every happy person in your social network increases your own chance of cheer by 9 percent — and the effects of catching someone else’s happiness lasts up to one year.
The study, which looked at nearly 5,000 individuals over 20 years, was published online Thursday in the British Medical Journal.
Fowler and Christakis were able to map the social networks of 4,739 individuals with data from the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing cardiovascular study. Participants in that study listed contact information for their closest friends, family members and neighbors, connecting the pair of researchers to more than 50,000 social ties. Fowler and Christakis have used that data set for similar studies published in the last two years that showed how obesity and smoking cessation can spread throughout a social network.
The researchers used the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Index — a standard set of questions psychologists use to measure happiness — to analyze the cheeriness of the study participants. They found that when someone gets happy, that person’s friend experiences a 25 percent increased chance of becoming happy. A friend of that friend experiences a nearly 10 percent chance of increased happiness, and a friend of that friend has a 5.6 percent increased chance of happiness.
That means a stranger’s good mood can do more to lift your spirits than a $5,000 raise, which only increased happiness 2 percent, Fowler and Christakis found.
“Happiness is a social emotion. It's an emotion that we derive from social events, and very typically and it becomes important for cementing the social connections we have with others,” says Jack Dovidio, a Yale University social psychologist who was not involved in the study. “Happiness is not simply about me.”
What’s more, all these happy people could be helping to keep each other healthy. Several recent medical studies have linked happiness and health, including a 2006 Carnegie Mellon University study that found buoyant personality types catch fewer colds than downers . And a 2001 University of Kentucky at Lexington study used the handwritten autobiographies of 180 Catholic nuns to judge the effect of happiness on longevity: The nuns who used more positive words to describe their lives lived about 10 years longer than those who used more negative words to describe their lives.
“It does appear possibly to be a causal affect — that being happier actually makes you healthier,” Fowler says.
But it seems you can’t catch happiness over the phone. Fowler and Christakis found that the increase in happiness only affects friends who live within a mile away from each other. “For emotions, it appears that distance is really important,” Fowler says. “Friends who are close have an affect; friends who are far away don’t. The less you’re in contact with somebody the less likely you are to catch their happiness.”
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