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Happiness Is Infectious Says Harvard Scientists

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Harvard scientists, in conjunction with researchers from the Department of Political Science California have teamed up to let us know that happiness is infectious, much like a disease. The object of the study was to find out if happiness spreads, and whether or not your friends can pass on happiness to their friends.

In order to find out if happiness is infectious, the researchers looked at data from the Framingham Heart Study social network that included 4739 individuals, followed from 1983 to 2003. The scientists found that when we intermingle with happy people, feelings of well-being spread, much like a disease.

By the way, Happiness, Satisfaction Might Lead To Better Health.

The World Health Organization has embraced the notion that happiness is essential for good health. The study of happiness has become a science, as researchers have studied phenomena that promote happiness in the lives of humans, including such events as money, love, or job success. What they had not studied until now, is whether the happiness of others plays a role in determining individual happiness.

The researchers found that, "Emotional states can be transferred directly from one individual to another by mimicry and "emotional contagion". We seem to "catch" the facial expressions and emotions of others when we interact with each other.

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The study authors write, "We were particularly interested in whether the spread of happiness pertains not just to direct relationships (such as friends) but also to indirect relationships (such as friends of friends. They found out that happiness is indeed infectious. When we socially network with happy groups, the happiness bug spreads. The study also showed that just living in proximity to happier people is infectious, including neighbors, and those living within a mile of each other. The effect deteriorated with changes in geographical location. If you live in a happy neighborhood, you may want to make certain that if you move, your new neighbors are wearing a smile.

The scientists defined happiness as "positive emotions". They measured study participants responses to questions such as, "I felt hopeful about the future," "I was happy," "I enjoyed life," "I felt that I was just as good as other people", analyzing the answers at baseline. A follow-up questionnaire, using the same measurement tool, found that "16% of individuals became happy, 13% became unhappy, 49% remained happy, and 22% remained unhappy". When the research group adjusted for possible variables, they found that the people who remained happy were in the network of others who were happy, by three degrees of separation, (friends of friends of friends).

The conclusion from the study is that making friends with a happy person can boost your own feelings of happiness by nine percent, while a sad or grumpy friend means you have a seven percent reduction in your chances of becoming infected with happiness. Contributing study author, Nicholas Christakis, a professor in Harvard University's sociology department says, "Whether you're happy depends not just on your own actions and behaviours and thoughts, but on those of people you don't even know."

However, the study authors caution about trying to manipulate your friends just for the sake of your own happiness. Stanley Wasserman, an Indiana University statistician who studies social networks says that might be "taking things too far".

You may also want to know Why Money Doesn't Bring Happiness.

Unhappiness can lead to disease. Happy people have better immune function and less inflammation in the body that can lead to heart disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer. The idea that we can infect each other with happiness sheds a light on the power that positive emotions can have on the lives of others.