Can Happiness Save the World?

I found this at the news website…

New reason to be happy: It may go a long way

Friends of friends of friends cheered, social

study finds

By Carolyn Y. Johnson Globe Staff / December 5, 2008

Happiness ripples well beyond a person’s inner circle of friends and family, lifting the mood of an extended network of social contacts who might even be strangers, according to a provocative study published today.


Psychologists have long known that feelings can be contagious over short time frames or that people reflexively return smiles. But the new social network analysis showed that that contagious effect extends three “degrees” – as far as a friend of a friend of a friend – and drops off with time and distance.

The effects can last a year, researchers said in British Medical Journal.

“Your happiness is not just about your own choices and actions and behaviors and thoughts,” said Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a coauthor of the study and a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School. “It’s like there are emotional stampedes that ripple across this infinite fabric of humanity.”

Scientists have looked at factors such as lottery windfalls, genes, exercise, church attendance, political elections, and divorce in the quest to understand happiness. But this new study merely looks around – at spouses, coworkers, siblings, neighbors, and friends. Using comprehensive data collected on 4,739 people over two decades, the researchers studied individuals’ levels of happiness and their social relationships.

A happy friend who lives within a mile, for example, boosts your odds of being happy by 25 percent, researchers found. A happy sibling within the same distance increases your probability of happiness by 14 percent.

It seems obvious that your closest friends might influence your mood, but the study found that even the happiness of a friend’s friend boosts your chance of being happy by 9.8 percent. Even more surprising, the happiness of a friend of a friend of a friend boosts your chance of being happy by 5.6 percent.

Unhappiness, on the other hand, did not spread as much.

“This is a stunning paper,” Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote in an e-mail. “It is sometimes said that you can’t be happier than your least happy child. It is truly amazing to discover that when you replace the word ‘child’ with ‘best friend’s neighbor’s uncle,’ the sentence is still true.”

Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, called the study “path-breaking.” After reading it, he said, he decided to switch his lecture topic for the week.

“There’s been quite a lot of research on individual happiness and its determinants, but there’s really been nothing rigorous until this came along about the contagion of happiness,” Seligman said. “People have asked in evolutionary psychology about what does positive emotion do, and one very important notion is that it tunes the group . . . if you want to hunt mastodons or gather rice, it’s good to be tuned.”Continued…


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