If you're happy and you know it, thank your friends—and their friends. And while you're at it, their friends' friends. But if you're sad, hold the blame. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego have found that "happiness" is not the result solely of a cloistered journey filled with individually tailored self-help techniques. Happiness is also a collective phenomenon that spreads through social networks like an emotional contagion.
In a study that looked at the happiness of nearly 5000 individuals over a period of twenty years, researchers found that when an individual becomes happy, the network effect can be measured up to three degrees. One person's happiness triggers a chain reaction that benefits not only their friends, but their friends' friends, and their friends' friends' friends. The effect lasts for up to one year.
The flip side, interestingly, is not the case: Sadness does not spread through social networks as robustly as happiness. Happiness appears to love company more so than misery.
"We've found that your emotional state may depend on the emotional experiences of people you don't even know, who are two to three degrees removed from you," says Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas Christakis, who, along with James Fowler from the University of California, San Diego co-authored this study. "And the effect isn't just fleeting." The study, “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network…” was published online this week in the British Medical Journal.
For over two years now, Christakis and Fowler have been mining data from the Framingham Heart Study (an ongoing cardiovascular study begun in 1948), reconstructing the social fabric in which individuals are enmeshed and analyzing the relationship between social networks and health. Participants filled in a standard depression index which showed that that when an individual becomes happy, a friend living within a mile experiences a 25 percent increased chance of becoming happy. A co-resident spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance, siblings living within one mile have a 14 percent increased chance, and for next door neighbours, 34 percent.
But the real surprise came with indirect relationships. Again, while an individual becoming happy increases his friend's chances, 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—a three-degree cascade.
Fowler also points out that these findings give us an interesting perspective for this holiday season, which arrives smack in the middle of some pretty gloomy economic times. Examination of this dataset shows that having $5,000 extra increased a person's chances of becoming happier by about 2 percent. But that the same data also show, as Fowler notes, that "Someone you don't know and have never met—the friend of a friend of a friend—can have a greater influence than hundreds of bills in your pocket." ~ Harvard Medical School/Newswise, Dec 4