Several thoughtful readers sent me links to a fascinating new study that explores the contagiousness of happiness. The phenomenon of emotional contagion in fleeting interactions is well-known, but this study sheds some interesting light on how happiness spreads over time and across a large group of people.
Ever since I read that study about how people quit smoking in groups, I’ve thought that the next big thing in behavioral research would be the examination of how people’s behaviors spread across social networks.
The bottom line of this new study (which looks at the same data as the smoking study): happy people make other people happier. On average, for example, each happy person in your social network boosts your chance of happiness by 9 percent.
I liked reading this study, because it provides further scientific support for my own Second Splendid Truth. It took me a long time to see this truth clearly, because there’s a circularity to it that confused me, but once I understood it, a lot of things became much clearer:
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
Therefore, contrary to what a lot of people argue, striving to be happier isn’t a self-centered concern; happy people make other people happy. Happy people are also more inclined to volunteer, to donate money, to try to help other people, to persist with problem-solving, etc. than are unhappy people. Some people assume that happy people tend to be complacent and self-absorbed, but just the opposite is true.
One thing that surprised me was the apparent finding that unhappiness isn’t as catching as happiness within a social network. That’s odd, because in general, negative emotions are much stickier than positive ones — that’s the negativity bias.
It may be that in this study, looking at networks, what’s happening is that people are avoiding unhappy people altogether, or the unhappy people are isolating themselves, so that mood isn’t catching on. My guess would be that in any particular interaction, unhappiness is more catching than happiness.
There were other findings in the study that I questioned – but I wholeheartedly accept the idea that we all influence each other to be happier.
Speaking of psychology, a great place to find a ton of fascinating posts is on the Psychology Today blogs site. It covers every angle of human psychology.
Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.
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