Is Your Happiness Contagious?

Dec 5, 2008 2:34am

By DAN CHILDS, ABC News Medical Unit

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you.”

It may be an old maxim, but new research suggests that it may ring truer than any of us might have thought — at least within our own social networks. Specifically, new research published in the British Medical Journal suggests that our happiness may be contagious, affecting not only our friends, but their friends and their friends’ friends.

The data used in the research came straight out of the now-famous Framingham Heart study — which was actually geared toward studying the physical health of hearts, rather than measuring the amount of joy with which they happened to be filled.

Still, Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard and James Fowler of the University of California-San Diego were able to reconstruct the social networks of 5,000 people involved in the study and tease apart how their happiness might have affected those around them.

They found that when a person becomes happy, their next-door neighbors enjoy an increased chance of being happy as well — a 34 percent increased chance, in fact, for those interested in quantifying their joy.

A friend living less than a mile away would get a happiness boost of 25 percent, and siblings living within the same radius would have a 14 percent increased chance of being happy (chalk it up to sibling rivalry, perhaps?).

For clarification, turned to University of California-Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, who herself is no stranger to the study of happiness. In 2005, she led a review of 225 studies that delve into what makes us happy — and her team concluded that an overall optimistic outlook tends to lead to happiness, not the other way around.

This new study, she said, further suggests the enticing possibility that this cheery optimism may well be contagious.

“I think it validates what’s been in the research,” Lyubomirsky said. “I think it shows, first of all, that emotions are contagious. And it also confirms that people with more social ties are also happier.”

But what does your happiness have to do with the happiness of those you may never even have met? And can something like happiness truly have a geographic “ripple effect” that fades as it reaches your acquaintances who live farther and farther away?

There are, of course, alternative explanations — not the most outlandish of which is the idea that we tend to flock to those who share our same sunny (or cloudy) take on life. It’s an alternative that Andrew Steptoe of University College London and Ana Diez Roux of the University of Michigan School of Public Health addressed in an accompanying editorial.

“This process is complicated to investigate because, unlike infectious agents, the transmission of behaviors or psychological states cannot be measured directly,” the authors wrote. “Therefore, studies of the transmission of non-infectious outcomes must make a special effort to rule out other reasons for shared behaviors or attitudes among socially proximate people.”

In other words, the simple alternative may be that those people who are similarly affluent, live in close proximity to each other and otherwise be very similar — even in terms of their happiness.

And the study has its fair share of rather baffling findings. For example, your happiness doesn’t necessarily seem to rub off on your co-workers, for one reason or another. Maybe, Lyubomirsky said, this could be because the very thing that made you happy in the first place — a raise, for example — was something that they may have wanted for themselves. She noted, though, that this was just speculation.

Another oddity is that happiness did not seem to be as contagious between spouses; in fact, a happy person only increased their partner’s chance of being happy by a measly 8 percent. It’s a finding that even Lyubomirsky admits she finds “pretty puzzling.”

(At this moment, one can almost see in their mind’s eye an elderly couple sitting in the living room of their Framingham home. As he gazes off into the distance, an idiotic grin plastered across his face, she asks, “Alright, what the hell have YOU been up to?” Again, just speculation.)

But regardless of how you choose to split the hairs, Lyubomirsky said that the practical message of the research is clear.

“Certainly this would suggest that you would want to associate yourself with happier people,” she said.

Or it might even give you more reason to be just a bit happier yourself. After all, you’ve got your neighbors — and their friends — to think about.


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