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When just one person in a group becomes happy, researchers were able to measure a three-degree spread of that person’s cheer.
By Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 12/4/2008 7:00:32 PM ET 2008-12-05T00:00:32

Feeling inexplicably cheery today? Thank your friends. And your friends’ friends. And your friends’ friends’ friends.

New research shows that happiness isn’t just an individual phenomenon; we can catch happiness from friends and family members like an emotional virus. When just one person in a group becomes happy, researchers were able to measure a three-degree spread of that person’s cheer. In other words, our moods can brighten thanks to someone we haven’t even met.

“Especially in the United States, we’re very used to thinking of ourselves as rugged individuals. But even very small things that happen to us have big impacts on dozens and hundreds of other people,” says James Fowler, a University of California, San Diego, political scientist, who co-authored the study with Harvard University medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis. “The things that we do and the things that we feel are going to reverberate throughout our social network.”

On average, every happy person in your social network increases your own chance of cheer by 9 percent — and the effects of catching someone else’s happiness lasts up to one year. The study, which looked at nearly 5,000 individuals over 20 years, was published online Thursday in the British Medical Journal.

Fowler and Christakis were able to map the social networks of 4,739 individuals with data from the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing cardiovascular study. Participants in that study listed contact information for their closest friends, family members and neighbors, connecting the pair of researchers to more than 50,000 social ties. Fowler and Christakis have used that data set for similar studies published in the last two years that showed how obesity and smoking cessation can spread throughout a social network. The researchers used the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Index — a standard set of questions psychologists use to measure happiness — to analyze the cheeriness of the study participants. They found that when someone gets happy, that person’s friend experiences a 25 percent increased chance of becoming happy. A friend of that friend experiences a nearly 10 percent chance of increased happiness, and a friend of that friend has a 5.6 percent increased chance of happiness.

That means a stranger’s good mood can do more to lift your spirits than a $5,000 raise, which only increased happiness 2 percent, Fowler and Christakis found.

“Happiness is a social emotion. It's an emotion that we derive from social events, and very typically and it becomes important for cementing the social connections we have with others,” says Jack Dovidio, a Yale University social psychologist who was not involved in the study. “Happiness is not simply about me.”

What’s more, all these happy people could be helping to keep each other healthy. Several recent medical studies have linked happiness and health, including a 2006 Carnegie Mellon University study that found buoyant personality types catch fewer colds than downers . And a 2001 University of Kentucky at Lexington study used the handwritten autobiographies of 180 Catholic nuns to judge the effect of happiness on longevity: The nuns who used more positive words to describe their lives lived about 10 years longer than those who used more negative words to describe their lives.

“It does appear possibly to be a causal affect — that being happier actually makes you healthier,” Fowler says.

But it seems you can’t catch happiness over the phone. Fowler and Christakis found that the increase in happiness only affects friends who live within a mile away from each other. “For emotions, it appears that distance is really important,” Fowler says. “Friends who are close have an affect; friends who are far away don’t. The less you’re in contact with somebody the less likely you are to catch their happiness.”

The one-mile finding in the study is sure to sound odd to close friends who may live across town from each other. But Fowler says the key seems to be in how frequently you see your friends and those living closest saw each other the most often. (He says when they looked at the effect of happiness on friends who lived more than a mile apart, the results were too inconsistent to be anything more than chance.)

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Sadness isn't as catching
On the flip side, if you’re feeling blue, you’ve only yourself to blame. Sadness doesn’t infect a social group as reliably happiness does, researchers found. Within some friendship networks, sadness had a significant effect on the members of the group, but on others, the effect was very small.

“With sadness, rather than pulling you in to your social network you often push people away,” says Emory University psychologist Nadine Kaslow, who wasn’t involved in this study. “Even though we know social support is really good for us when we’re sad, when we need it the most, we tend to push people away.” It might be a matter of private, personal emotions versus those that are meant to be shared. Anger, for example, might be another outward emotion that would spread within a group the same way happiness does, suggests Dovidio.

“When we are close to somebody, we actually have kind of a merging of our self image,” Dovidio says. And an infectious case of cheer can help cement connections within a group of friends, he adds, because it can re-affirm how close those relationships are.

“People often get a sense of happiness, even though they don't know where it comes from; it's probably very likely to come from the happiness of other people,” Dovidio says. “If I can't locate where my happiness came from it's likely that it came from another person.”

Once Fowler realized how far-reaching his own good cheer actually is, he has begun to make some changes to ensure he’s in a chipper mood more often. Lately, in the evenings on the drive home from work, just before pulling up to his house, he turns on a tune that’s almost too happy: Hoku’s “Perfect Day.” By the time he gets home, he has a giddy, goofy mood to match the pop song, and he hopes that his happiness will rub off on his two boys, 8-year-old Lucas and 6-year-old Jay.

“I’m not just going to make my sons happy — I could potentially make my sons’ friends happy,” Fowler says. “These little things I thought I was doing for myself turn out to be for hundreds of people.”

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