The Happiness Contagion

Posted on December 7, 2008

A new study reports that happiness is contagious. And a stranger's happiness is more contagious that the happiness of your family members.
How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends' friends' friends are, even if you donít know them at all. And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse's mood. So says a new study that followed a large group of people for 20 years -- happiness is more contagious than previously thought.

"Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don't even know who are one, two and three degrees removed from you," said Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study, to be published Friday in BMJ, a British journal. "There's kind of an emotional quiet riot that occurs and takes on a life of its own, that people themselves may be unaware of. Emotions have a collective existence -- they are not just an individual phenomenon."

In fact, said his co-author, James H. Fowler, an associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego, their research found that "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." The researchers analyzed information on the happiness of 4,739 people and their connections with several thousand others ó spouses, relatives, close friends, neighbors and co-workers -- from 1983 to 2003.
But not everyone agrees with the study's conclusions Princeton emeritus psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman isn't buying it.
Dr. Kahneman said unless the findings were replicated, he could not accept that a spouse's happiness had less impact than a next-door neighbor.


An accompanying BMJ editorial about the two studies called the Christakis-Fowler study "groundbreaking," but said "future work is needed to verify the presence and strength of these associations."
We're skeptical. Why would our own family member's happiness affect us less than the happiness of someone we don't even know?