The epidemiology of happiness

‘Tis the season…

Oh, no, wait, I can’t use THAT opening again.

Um, how about…At this time of year, there’s a lot of talk about joy and happiness. There’s also a lot of talk about influenza. You might think them unrelated, but in fact they share one very interesting characteristic: they’re both contagious.

If contagious happiness sounds familiar, you’re probably remembering the 1968 movie comedy “What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?”, starring George Peppard and Mary Tyler Moore.

Or maybe I’m the only one who remembers it.

Anyway, in the movie, a toucan carrying a happiness-causing virus is smuggled into New York City. The virus infects so many people that that the city faces economic disaster: no one is buying cigarettes, booze or tranquilizers. Fortunately, officialdom manages to stop the epidemic, and, in the words of Sandra Brennan, writing in the All Movie Guide, “the renowned rudeness, cruelty and selfishness of the native New Yorkers quickly returns, and the city is saved.”

Fortunately or unfortunately, happiness is not (yet) transmitted by a virus. But it nevertheless spreads like one, according to new research led by James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego.

In association with Nicholas Christakis of the Harvard Medical School, he examined 53,228 social connections among 5,124 people taking part in the decades-long Framingham Heart Study. Participants update researchers regularly on their social contacts and health status–including happiness (measured by a standard psychological questionnaire).

Many of the participants list other study participants as social contacts, which helped the researchers correlate their findings.

The effect is most pronounced when the happiness is close at hand. A happy sibling who lives within a mile can increase your chance of being happy by 14 percent, a happy next-door neighbor can boost your chance of happiness by a third, and a happy friend who lives within half a mile gives you the best shot at all of being happy yourself, increasing the possibility by a whopping 42 percent.

On average, a happy friend at any distance increases your chance of happiness by 15 percent. The effect falls off, but still exists, through three degrees of separation: a happy friend of a friend can make it 10 percent likelier you’ll be happy, while a happy friend of a friend of a friend boosts your shot at happiness by six percent.

The contagion can be slowed, but not stopped, by unhappy friends. On average, each happy contact increases your own chance of being happy by nine percent; each unhappy contact decreases your own chance of being happy by seven percent.

According to New Scientist
, Fowler and Christakis bet each other over which would be the more powerful force: happiness or unhappiness. Fowler won.

“I think that happiness is more likely to spread because here’s an emotion that’s about social cohesion,” Fowler is quoted as saying, adding that visible and contagious happiness may have helped our ancestors maintain social cohesion.

In other words, there’s a survival benefit to happiness. As Ruut Veenhoven, a Dutch sociologist who edits the Journal of Happiness Studies (and doesn’t that sound like a nice job?) says, “Happy people are typically more involved, are nicer to their kids and their dog, and live longer.”

I am now going to extrapolate wildly from a single study, because that’s what newspaper science writers do.

According to a study released earlier this year, Denmark is the happiest country in the world. Canada ranked ninth.

If happiness is contagious, and we want to be happy, it seems what we should really be doing is cultivating a strong national relationship with Denmark.

In fact, we should cultivate closer relationships with all of the countries happier than ourselves. That would be Puerto Rico, Colombia, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Maybe a formal alliance isn’t out of order. The Happy Alliance of Happy Allies: HAHA, for short.

Oh, sure, we’d probably get labeled as part of an “Axis of Happiness,” but we could live with that. And since happiness is contagious, soon happiness and goodwill might break out all over the world.

In other words, “Joy to the world!” as official foreign policy.

Hey, it beats some others we’ve had.

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1 comment

    • Janet on December 8, 2008 at 9:02 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the giggle. I read about that study too, but the geopolitical implications never occurred to me.


    And Northern Ireland? Who woulda thunk that, a few years back?

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