Happiness: It Really Is Contagious A new study finds that when one person becomes happy, the effect can spread up to 3 degrees in a social network — reaching friends of friends. Researchers say this is evidence that because our lives are interconnected, so too is our emotional health.

Happiness: It Really Is Contagious

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For the moment, Thailand is not living up to its reputation as the land of smiles, but researchers in this country have documented how happiness can spread through social networks. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: Nobody in my house woke up grumpy. My husband was good, kids were perky, and here in the office are people happy? I bumped into Don Gonyea, our White House reporter in the morning and asked him.

DON GONYEA: In certain ways, I am always happy.

AUBREY: You're a happy guy. It's your set point, happiness.

GONYEA: Yes, it is, basically. It's a blessing, and it's a curse. I'm OK today. I'm reasonably happy.

AUBREY: Judging by the findings of the new research that shows emotions can spread through social networks, seems as if my odds of being happy are pretty decent. I put the question to Harvard researcher Nicholas Christakis, co-author of the study.

Mr. NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS (Harvard Researcher, Co-author Social Networks Study): Yeah. I think that's likely to be the case. I think that everyday interactions we have with other people are definitely contagious in terms of happiness and frankly, we suspect other emotions. But what's interesting is not just that your happiness depends on the happiness of your family and your friends, but that your happiness depends on the family and friends of your family and friends.

AUBREY: The way Christakis sees it, it's almost a herd effect or a stampede of emotion. To document this spread of emotion, Christakis and his colleague plotted out the social connections of about 5,000 people in Framingham, Massachusetts. They're part of an ongoing heart study. On three separate occasions between 1984 and 2003, these people filled out questionnaires designed to assess their emotional health. This survey included questions such as...

Mr. CHRISTAKIS: How often during the past week would you say you were or would you say, I enjoyed life, I was happy, I felt hopeful about the future, I felt that I was just as good as other people?

AUBREY: Christakis explains people who answered more often on the positive end of the scale were judged to be happy. When he and James Fowler of U.C. San Diego plotted out the happy and unhappy, and looked to see how these people were connected in social space, an interesting picture began to emerge.

Professor JAMES FOWLER (U.C. San Diego): We actually find that people at the center of the social network tend to be happier, and these are people with more friends and more friends of friends.

AUBREY: Fowler says imagine having a bird's eye view of a party. You may see some people in quiet corners talking one of one. Others would be at the center of the room having conversations with lots of different people. According to Fowler's findings, those in the center would be among the happiest.

Prof. FOWLER: Now, we think the reason why is because they are more susceptible to these waves of happiness that spread through the network.

AUBREY: Of course, it's true that emotions can be fleeting. Happiness is elusive. Sometimes it's situational. Psychologist Robert Provine, who was not involved in the study, says it's difficult for researchers to get a good measure of something so subjective.

Professor ROBERT PROVINE (Psychology, University of Maryland): One of the challenges is dealing with a fluid dynamic process by using a questionnaire.

AUBREY: Nonetheless, Provine says this study does show in a broad way that moods can be contagious. So, if happiness spreads from person to person, what about unhappiness? Doesn't misery love company? Well, not as much, says James Fowler. In the social network they studied, each unhappy contact a person had decreased their chances of being happy by only about 7 percent.

Prof. FOWLER: Unhappiness really doesn't seem to spread as well as happiness.

AUBREY: Nicholas Christakis says the reason may be that positive emotions tend to bind people together.

Mr. CHRISTAKIS: Happiness integrates groups in a way that unhappiness does not.

AUBREY: Which Christakis happily acknowledges is just his hunch. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can see how happiness spreads through social networks at npr.org.

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