An epidemic of happiness?

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine highlights the work of two social scientists named Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, who have concluded that happiness is contagious. Unhappiness is contagious too, but 2% less contagious, it turns out.

The research used data from the historic multi-year Framingham Study on health initially focused on obesity and health-related habits, and found that both obesity and health habits appear in social clusters, or networks. People who decide to lose weight or give up smoking spread that behavior to others, who then spread it others yet again. In fact, the study showed that one individual actually affects the behaviors of friends of friends of friends before the effect dissipates.

Happiness follows the same pattern, and spreads contagiously to others. Overall, happiness spread at a rate of 9%, compared with unhappiness, which spread only at 7%. Thus, continued exposure to happiness accumulates over time and eliminates the contagion of unhappiness. Good news!

Other researchers are not entirely convinced. They are afraid that the factor of homophily, or the tendency of people to gather with others of their inclination has not been adequately factored into the statistics. Perhaps, they say, happiness does not spread virally, but happy people, for example, simply find and spend time with each other. The research continues.

That people are social animals is no surprise, nor is the fact they have influence on others. “Keeping up with the ‘Jones’s” is at the heart of advertising, after all, and were it not for Madison Avenue’s cynically manipulative techniques requiring incessant brain-numbing repetition, ads might more reliably tap into our desire to be like others. However, playing upon envy, pride and greed does not hold a candle to the influence of behavior or intentions of someone we truly enjoy as a friend. Media-scripted commercial “caring” is always phony while genuine friendship is reliably powerful and influential.

Of particular interest is the connectedness of behavior on those with whom those studied only had a third-degree association. Third-degree means a friend of a friend of a friend, as opposed to simply a friend (first degree). As behavioral attitudes are carried virally from person to person, such influence extends (at a lesser rate of “infection”) well beyond three-degrees of separation. Collective nodes of behaviors like happiness grow, becoming tangent to other growing nodes of happiness; the circle of viral contact increases. Taking cues from epidemiological studies, the researchers noted that over time nodes became “super-nodes” geometrically increasing and affecting enormous numbers of people.

If happiness is infectious, noted one author of the study, how we interact with members of our family has major impact. He now listens to upbeat music on his way home from work so that he brings an elevated mood into his house. Thus his happiness spreads among the members of his family, particularly his children. The contagion of obesity, alcohol and drug use, depression, and other forms of human suffering seem to follow the same patterns, with rates of contagion that vary. But nothing spreads as well as happiness.

Much as epigenetics explains how feelings and experiences influence the expression of genes, this study shows that how we each feel generates a field of intention that extends well past personal boundaries and ultimately affects people we don’t even know.