Ever wonder whether happy people have something you don’t, something that keeps them cheerful, chipper and able to see the good in everything? It turns out they do — they have happy friends.
That’s the conclusion of researchers from Harvard and the University of California at San Diego, who report in the British Medical Journal online that happiness spreads among people like a salubrious disease. Dr. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler studied nearly 5,000 people and their more than 50,000 social ties to family, friends and co-workers, and found that an individual’s happiness is chiefly a collective affair, depending in large part on his or her friends’ happiness — and the happiness of their friends’ friends, and even the friends of their friends’ friends. The merriment of one person, the researchers found, can ripple out and cause happiness in people up to three degrees away: So, if you’re happy, you increase the chance of joy in your close friend by 25%; a friend of that friend enjoys a 10% increased chance. And that friend’s friend has a 5.6% higher chance.
“This is a very serious piece of research; it’s pioneering,” says Dr. Richard Suzman, director of the division of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging. “We are barely beginning to understand its translational and applied aspects.”
The authors analyzed data from the Framingham Heart Study, an historic study of heart disease among nearly 5,000 people begun in 1948. Because it was designed to follow participants and their offspring over several generations, the study’s creators recorded detailed information about each person’s closest relatives and friends, to better keep tabs on the original participants. That database served as an ideal social laboratory for Christakis and Fowler, who questioned each participant and his or her friends and family about their emotional state three times over 20 years.