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Happiness is Contagious

Recent research sent to us by our friend Brad Grossman* who publishes the “The Zeitguide”  …

Your happiness is directly correlated with that of the people around you; not just your friends, but your friends’ friends, as well.

That’s what Nicholas A. Christakis, physician, sociologist, and Professor at Harvard, and James H. Fowler, internationally recognized political scientist, profess in their recently published paper in the British Medical Journal. Using happiness data collected from nearly 5,000 people and the people close to them over the course of 20 years, the two researchers concluded that the happiest people tend to be at the center of their social networks and that happy people associate in clusters. Based on their studies, an additional $5,000 in income increases the probability of happiness by 2%; an extra happy friend ups the probability by 9%.

They supplemented their study with additional consideration of online social networks (Facebook, MySpace), examining profiles of people who knew each other and looking at pictures to determine who was smiling often and who were smiling in pictures together. The same conclusions were drawn from the online study: happy people cluster together, as do unhappy people.

“Hear” more from NPR  …  link to the actual academic paper in the British Medical Journal or read a study synopses by the researchers … 

NPR, December 15, 2008

Turns out, misery may not love company – but happiness does, research suggests.

A new study by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego documents how happiness spreads through social networks.

They found that when a person becomes happy, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happy themselves. A spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance and for next-door neighbors, it’s 34 percent.

“Everyday interactions we have with other people are definitely contagious, in terms of happiness,” says Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study.

Perhaps more surprising, Christakis says, is that the effect extends beyond the people we come into contact with. When one person becomes happy, the social network effect can spread up to 3 degrees – reaching friends of friends.

To study the spread of emotion, the researchers plotted out the social connections of about 5,000 individuals enrolled in the ongoing Framingham Heart Study.

On three separate occasions between 1984 and 2003, the participants filled out a questionnaire designed by the Center for Epidemiological Studies to assess depression and emotional health.

To measure happiness, Christakis relied on people’s answers to four questions in the survey, including: “How often during the past week would you say: I enjoyed life? I felt hopeful about the future?”

When he and his colleagues plotted out how the happy and unhappy participants were connected in social space, an interesting picture emerged.

“We find that people at the center of the social network tend to be happier,” says co-author James Fowler, a political science professor at U.C. San Diego.

Imagine a birds-eye view of a party: “You may see some people in quiet corners talking one-on-one,” Fowler says. Others would be at the center of the room having conversations with lots of people. According to the study findings, those in the center would be among the happiest.

“We think the reason why is because those in the center are more susceptible to the waves of happiness that spread throughout the network,” Fowler explains.

Of course, it’s true that emotions can be fleeting; happiness is elusive and sometimes it’s situational. For these reasons, emotional states are difficult to measure, says Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “There are lots of challenges.”

Nonetheless, Provine, who has studied the contagion of laughter, says this study is impressive in showing that moods can be contagious, too.


THE RESEARCH STUDY as published in : Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study  by James H Fowler, associate professor1, Nicholas A Christakis, professor2; 1 Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA , 2 Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, and Department of Sociology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

Objectives: To evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks.

Participants: 4739 individuals followed from 1983 to 2003.

Main outcome measures: Happiness measured with validated four item scale; broad array of attributes of social networks and diverse social ties.

Results Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals. A friend who lives within a mile (about 1.6 km) and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25% (95% confidence interval 1% to 57%). Similar effects are seen in coresident spouses (8%, 0.2% to 16%), siblings who live within a mile (14%, 1% to 28%), and next door neighbours (34%, 7% to 70%). Effects are not seen between coworkers. The effect decays with time and with geographical separation.

Conclusions: People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.

∞      ∞        ∞        ∞        ∞

Brad Grossman, Innovation through Knowledge and Networks, publisher of “The Zeitguide,”, 310 614 4779

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On Harriett's Mind

Do you have a fiction affliction?


Do you have a fiction affliction?

Peggy Noonan recently wrote in her WSJ column “A Year for the Books” that she once received some offhand advice to “Never feel guilty about reading, it’s what you do to do your job.”

She forecasts (and I agree) that “reading is about to make a big comeback in America … we’re going to be reading more books in the future, not fewer.” And, then, she says: “I spent my youth reading novels, and learning life from them.  Then at some point in my 40s, all I wanted was what was true.  What happened in the war, at the battle, in that important life?  I ask people my age, ‘Do you read mostly nonfiction now?’  They almost always say, ‘Yes.’ Is this connected to age?  Here’s a twist:  Lately I want to turn back to novels again.”

Here, here!

She never talks about why she’s had a fiction affliction.  So I’m here to expound. It’s just possible that for those of us who loved novels, as we grew older, this became associated with guilty pleasure — time away from the things we were supposed to be doing.  If we were going to “spend time” reading, it needed to be to learn something useful and practical — facts that would help make things work better, whether it be our careers, our kids, our relationships, our intellect, our cocktail conversation.

My reading conversion came about when friends asked me to join their book club.  At that first meeting I was floored to discover that they were reading fiction!  Upon being assigned “The Namesake” — what a rich experience that was — I was reminded of what I was missing.  Now, my Kindle (do buy one) does triple-time as I catch minutes here and there to dive into our latest novel selection.  (We did just try some nonfiction; the consensus was that it was much more fun the other way.)

So, yes.  Maybe now’s the time to remember when reading was your ultimate retreat.  Mentally shuttered away, the words wash over and penetrate, taking you to some intriguing place.  And, maybe, just maybe, you learn something — for the heart as well as for the head.  That, after all, is an even more necessary life requirement.

Now I’m in the middle of a new thriller, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson.  I’m curious as to the financial journalist who was, possibly unfairly …

Oh, gosh, gotta go … need to be somewhere and have about 15 minutes left to finish this next chapter…


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On Harriett's Mind

The Rick Warren inauguration invocation thing …

I’ve been trying to [dispassionately] figure out how I feel about Rick Warren giving the invocation at Obama’s inauguration:

My 1st impulse:  Understanding —  OK, so Obama’s reaching out …

My 2nd impulse:  Disappointment & Disgust –  WHAT?!  How can Obama reach out to a church whose website basically states “no gays”?  What if instead the site said: “no African Americans” … “no American Indians” … “no Jews” … “no Muslims” … no _____.”  That’s the lowest form of discrimination, and there’s no excuse for Obama making any excuse!

My 3rd impulse:  Implausibility — If he wants to reach out, why not have a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim Mullah, and other religious leaders along with a Christian. (There are two Christians actually, as Joseph Lowery, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., will be delivering the benediction.)

My son’s impulse:  Viability  You’re wrong on all counts.  Obama’s just pandering and trying to avoid getting shot by the far right …”

While pondering “pandering” (and whether it was valid), I was going through some op-eds on a different subject and came across  “A Natural Alliance” by David Brooks published in The New York Times on May 26, 2005.  Writing during a year of “the bubble” about the need to join forces to fight poverty, Brooks says things of a kind that still have meaning today:

” … we can have a culture war in this country, or we can have a war on poverty, but we can’t have both. That is to say, liberals and conservatives can go on bashing each other for being godless hedonists and primitive theocrats, or they can set those differences off to one side and work together to help the needy.

The natural alliance for antipoverty measures at home and abroad is between liberals and evangelical Christians. These are the only two groups that are really hyped up about these problems and willing to devote time and money to ameliorating them. If liberals and evangelicals don’t get together on antipoverty measures, then there will be no majority for them and they won’t get done …

Serious differences over life issues are not going to go away. But more liberals and evangelicals are realizing that you don’t have to convert people; sometimes you can just work with them. The world is suddenly crowded with people like Rick Warren and Bono who are trying to step out of the logic of the culture war so they can accomplish more in the poverty war.”

My fourth impulse:  Cynicism and Hope — Whatever the war is that we’re fighting, we can’t win by minimizing others; we can only win by building upon our efforts together.

I sure hope Obama knows what he’s doing 


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Susan on Travel Travel & Work

It’s a New Year (almost)! Why not travel on your own (but with the opposite sex) …

Whether it’s snow or sun you crave, don’t let the fact that you’re alone stop you.  Our intrepid travel adviser Susan gives you terrific websites for traveling co-ed for all ages with trips going to just about anywhere …

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