Happiness is contagious

dancingfriendsNick Christakis (Harvard School of Public Health) and James Fowler (Univ. of Calif., San Diego), who previously used the Framingham Heart Study to show that having fat friends increasingly makes people obese, are back with a very interesting paper showing that happy friends make you happy — what the co-authors called ‘an emotional quiet riot’.

It is already established that happiness and having social capital (friendships) are linked, but this research demonstrates that it matters how happy your friends are and that it is the happy friends that are causing your happiness rather than vice versa. Conversely, having unhappy friends over time makes you less happy.

The research shows up in the latest issue of BMJ. “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.”  [The study involved 5,124 adults aged 21 to 70 who were followed between 1971 and 2003.]

They measured happiness with a 4-item construct:  “I felt hopeful about the future”; “I was happy”; “I enjoyed life” and “I felt that I was just as good as other people.”

They found that happiness is a network phenomenon, clustering in groups of people that extend out to 3 degrees of separation (the friends’ friends of one’s friends), but with greater impact on friendships that are 2 or 1 degree of separation from you.  Demonstrating the magnitude of this effect, co-author James Fowler noted, “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.”

They found that happiness spreads across a diverse array of social ties, from spouses to siblings to neighbors. They found no happiness effect of co-workers and found that nearby ties had a far greater influence than distant ties: for example, knowing someone who is happy, makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy, but having happy next-door neighbors makes you a full 34% more likely to be happy (much higher than having happy neighbors merely on your block). The optimal effect was for a happy friend living less than half a mile away, which boosts your chance of happiness by42%. In one of the study’s surprises, happy spouses (which one assumes live less than a half mile away!) only increased one’s chance of happiness by 8%. Part of the lower spouse effect is that happiness spreads more effectively through same sex relationships than relationships (romantic or not) between a man and a woman.  (Gays take note!)  Christakis and Fowler believe we may take emotional cues from people of our gender.

They observed that network characteristics (where you were in the network and how happy the people were around you) could independently predict which individuals would be happy years into the future.

They suggest that there may be an evolutionary basis for human emotions.  Previous work noted that emotions like laughter or smiling seemed evolutionary adapted to helping people form social bonds.  [They note: "Human laughter, for example, is believed to have evolved from the 'play face' expression seen in other primates in relaxed social situations. Such facial expressions and positive emotions enhance social relations by producing analogous pleasurable feelings in others."]

While they couldn’t prove it, they suggested 3 possible causal mechanisms:

  1. happy people might share their good fortune
  2. happy people might change their behavior toward others (by being nicer or less hostile)
  3. happy people might exude a contagious emotion (although this would have to be over a sustained time period)

Christakis and Fowler noted that the 3-degrees of separation impact observed in happiness was the same as for smoking and obesity (which also reached out 3 degrees). They wonder whether a “3-degrees of influence” extends to behaviors like depression, anxiety, loneliness, drinking, eating, exercise and other health-related activities.

So the next time you’re unhappy realize that you may be “infecting” your friends with unhappiness as well.  Christakis’ work is suggesting that we need friends, but we also need to carefully pick friends that are happy and have healthy behaviors or we risk that their unhappiness and unhealthy behaviors will spread to us.  The New York Times notes that one of the co-authors indicated that he now thinks twice about his mood knowing that it affects others. That said, he noted: “We are not giving you the advice to start smiling at everyone you meet in New York….That would be dangerous.”

While they think that face-to-face connection is important in spreading happiness (hence the decline of these effects with distance), they did a separate study of 1,700 Facebook profiles, where they found that people smiling in their photographs had more Facebook friends and that more of those friends were smiling. While the Facebook study is just an initial foray into the online word, Christakis thinks that it shows that some of these happiness findings might extend on social networking as well.  And it would take longitudinal studies to determine whether our online activities are gradually eroding our need for face-to-face communication to spread happiness.

Note: Justin Wolfers (on the Freakonomics blog) is skeptical of this research.  As he notes:

[It's possible that it is not your friends' happiness that is causing yours, but that "if you and I are friends, we are often subject to similar influences. If a buddy of ours dies, we’ll both be less happy. Or, less dramatically, if our favorite football team wins, we’ll both be happier. But this isn’t contagious happiness — it is simply a natural outcome of the shared experiences of people in the same social circles. Unfortunately, observational data cannot distinguish the headline-grabbing conclusion — that happiness is contagious — from my more mundane alternative: friends have shared emotional influences."

Wolfers notes that a very careful article by Ethan Cohen-Cole and Jason Fletcher uses the same research design to show how it can lead to silly conclusions.  Cohen-Cole and Fletcher find in another dataset that this approach shows “height, headaches, and acne are also contagious.” As Wolfers notes, it’s more likely that “the same jackhammer causing your headache is likely causing mine.” And the height finding is obviously not causal but more likely a function of homophily (people choosing similar friends).

See Clive Thompson, “Is Happiness Catching?” (NYT Sunday Magazine, 9/13/09)

Boston Globe story available here.

New York Times story available here (which also has a nice graphic showing the clustering in this network of happy and unhappy people).

L.A. Times story available here.

See Wolfers’ Freakonomics blog post here.

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