The happiness bug

The happiness bug December 7, 2008

Robert Ingersoll, the seminal 19th century American humanist, famously said that “The way to be happy is to make others so.” What he meant was that one of the most important sources of our own happiness is being surrounded by happy people.

Now some remarkable new evidence has demonstrated just how the happiness-inducing effect of happiness ripples through society. It turns out that not only does having happy friends makes you happy, but your happiness is bumped up further if your friends’ friends are happy. In fact, there’s a measurable effect all the way out to friends of friends of friends – three degrees of separation, in other words.

What the study did is use the famous Framingham Heart Study, which was set up sixty years ago in Massachusetts, USA, to track the factors that lead to heart disease. They enrolled 5,000 people in the original group, and have continued to monitor not only them, but their children and also added in extra people to keep the numbers up as members of the original group die.

The new study takes advantage of the fact that among the huge range of data recorded, the participants were also asked about their close friends. This enabled the researcher to use network-analysis tools to work out who was connected to whom as they followed them over the decades. Because all the participants at least started off in the same town (Framingham), many of them were friends, or friends of friends, of each other. They also rated each participant as happy or unhappy, based on their responses to several items on a questionnaire.

What they found was that having a happy friend increases the odds that you’ll be happy by 16%. But if your friend’s friend is happy, even if your friend is not, that still increases the odds that you’ll be happy by 10%. And out at the third degree of separation it still bumps up your happiness chances by about 5%.

The study also revealed some fascinating info on who makes us happy. It turns out that nearby friends and next-door neighbours have the biggest effect. Living with a spouse, or having brothers or sisters nearby, also has an effect, although somewhat smaller. People who live further away don’t increase your happiness, no matter how emotionally close they are to you. For happiness to be passed on, frequent contact is required!

As the researchers point out, these results have social policy implications. For example, a government action that makes one person happy (or unhappy) will also make those near to him or her happier. So the benefit is greater than you might at first think. As the researchers say:

Our findings have relevance for public health. To the extent that clinical or policy manoeuvres increase the happiness of one person, they might have cascade effects on others, thereby enhancing the efficacy and cost effectiveness of the intervention. For example, illness is a potential source of unhappiness for patients and also for those individuals surrounding the patient. Providing better care for those who are sick might not only improve their happiness but also the happiness of numerous others, thereby further vindicating the benefits of medical care or health promotion.

There are important implications for all this. Clearly, making individuals happy brings wider benefits for society. It’s yet another example of not only the reality of society, but how interlocked we all are. We’re all in this together.

J. H Fowler, N. A Christakis (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study BMJ, 337 (dec04 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a2338

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