Good health can be both the cause and consequence of being happy. That's why two pioneering scientists wanted to see if they could actually measure how happiness works in groups. What they discovered took everyone by happy surprise -- the happiness of others, even those you don't know, has a direct influence on your happiness.
The coauthor of this novel study on happiness, James Fowler, PhD, told me how the research was done. First his team combed through the records of 5,000 participants in the Framingham Heart Study, many of whom had identified one another as spouses, friends or neighbors. His team established a happiness baseline for these participants by checking their periodic answers to questions regarding their happiness over the past 20 years (1983 to 2003). Then they used a sophisticated statistical analysis tool to create a map of social connections among the initial 5,000 and other participants within the Framingham study. It showed how one person's happiness rippled like a network, creating a cascade of happiness that increased the likelihood of others being happy too.
They discovered that there were various degrees of influence depending on the degree of social connection and that it was quite predictable. For example, within your social network, the happiness of someone with whom you have frequent and regular personal contact, called an immediate social contact (for instance, your spouse or closest nearby friend), increases the likelihood of your happiness by an average of 15%. The happiness of a second-degree contact (for instance, your closest friend's spouse) increases your chances for happiness by 10%, while the happiness of a third-degree contact (your closest friend's friend's friend) increases it by 6%. In other words, your happiness is directly influenced by strangers.
MORE SPECIFIC LEARNINGS FROM THE HAPPINESS STUDY
- Proximity is key. The closer your happy friends and family live to you, the greater the probability that their happiness will affect you. For example, the happiness of your next door neighbor is more influential than the happiness of a neighbor who lives down the street.
- More social connections adds to your happiness. The bigger your social network of nearby happy friends and family, the greater the likelihood of your happiness.
- Unhappy people cluster together in unhappy networks. As the saying goes, misery loves company.
- Whether or not you were happy in the past and whether your social contacts are happy are more important predictors of happiness than your income, gender or education.
- Happiness is more powerful than unhappiness. The happiness of a friend increases the probability of your happiness by 9%... while his unhappiness decreases the chances of your happiness by only 7%.
- It's not fleeting. The impact of another's happiness on your happiness lasts about a year, on average, before fading.
HAPPINESS 2.0: ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS
Dr. Fowler and his coauthor Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, are now looking at the question of whether happiness spreads the same way via the Internet, specifically using the Facebook network. They assumed that those who posted smiling pictures of themselves with smiling friends were happy. Since Facebook automatically tags or uploads your photos to those registered as your "friends," they were able to trace the paths of these happy pictures. They found that smiling friends had photos of other smiling friends and so on and so on. (People who didn't smile in their photos, didn't have photos with friends who smiled, who in turn also didn't have photos of smiling friends.) Again -- happiness begets happiness and the same goes for unhappiness. Next they'll study how contagious online happiness turns out to be.
REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE
Dr. Fowler himself has been moved by his findings. "I think our study shows that the best thing we can do for ourselves is to connect to friends and family," says Dr. Fowler. "I have been personally affected by the study -- I have now seen the evidence that my happiness potentially ripples out and touches the lives of dozens or even hundreds of other people. In this very challenging time, creating a ripple of happiness can result in a tidal wave of change."
James H. Fowler, PhD, professor of political science, University of California-San Diego.