Happiness spreads better than sadness


Full story at: http://jondron.net/cofind/frshowresource.php?tid=5325&resid=1387

A great study by James Fowler (the same James Fowler who discovered that obesity is infectious through social networks) and Nicholas Christakis. It seems that happiness ripples through a population. Thankfully, it ripples slightly more effectively than sadness.

Their conclusion:

“People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.”

The research is an offshoot of the remarkable Framingham Heart Study, instigated in 1948 and carried on through generations of volunteers. The experimental methods seem to have effectively dismissed the possibility that the effects are a result of random clustering, homophily or confounding factors like joint experience of an economic downturn or neighbourhood upheaval.

The results are fascinating. We are 15% more likely to be happy if someone with whom we have a close connection is happy. The effect is greater than the unhappiness caused by unhappy close people. As a result, the better connected our friends and family are, the more likely it is that we will be happy:

“Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people. The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network.”

Becoming happy is a good thing for all concerned – an unhappy close friend becoming happy increases the chance that we will become happy by 25%. If the friendship is reciprocal, it increases the effect by 63%. Interestingly, friends and next-door neighbours have more effect than spouses, which may partly be explained by the fact that happiness spreads faster through same-sex relationships (they don’t discuss gay relationships though!).

Physical proximity is very important – the effect decays noticeably, even between next door neighbours and those a few doors away. As the study looks at data from 1971-2003 it is hard to draw any conclusions about the effects of computer-mediated relationships and the authors are careful to point out that they can only speculate on the mechanisms for transmission. It could be anything from the effects of happiness on behaviour (generosity, helpfulness etc) to the direct effects of smiling, to the influence of pheromones.

The authors observe that educated people are generally happier than those who are not (and, incidentally, that women are generally sadder than men, but that’s another issue). I’ve wondered in the past about how we could adopt an infection model of education. This gives another driver that could make it work. Happy people are generally better educated and happy people get better connected. So education can have a disproportionate effect on happiness that goes beyond the benefits to the educated. This is good news all round and further proof (if it were needed) that the absurd notion of treating students as customers should be relegated to history. The customer of education, it bears repeating, is society, not the student.

Created:Wed, 31 Dec 2008 13:58:00 GMT

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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