How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all.
And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood.
So says a new study that followed a large group of people for 20 years — happiness is more contagious than previously thought.
“Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two and three degrees removed from you,” said Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study, to be published Friday in BMJ, a British journal. “There’s kind of an emotional quiet riot that occurs and takes on a life of its own, that people themselves may be unaware of. Emotions have a collective existence — they are not just an individual phenomenon.”
In fact, said his co-author, James H. Fowler, an associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego, their research found that “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.”
The researchers analyzed information on the happiness of 4,739 people and their connections with several thousand others — spouses, relatives, close friends, neighbors and co-workers — from 1983 to 2003.
“It’s extremely important and interesting work,” said Daniel Kahneman, an emeritus psychologist and Nobel laureate at Princeton, who was not involved in the study. Several social scientists and economists praised the data and analysis, but raised possible limitations.
Steven Durlauf, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, questioned whether the study proved that people became happy because of their social contacts or some unrelated reason.
Dr. Kahneman said unless the findings were replicated, he could not accept that a spouse’s happiness had less impact than a next-door neighbor. Dr. Christakis believes that indicates that people take emotional cues from their own gender.
A study also to be published Friday in BMJ, by Ethan Cohen-Cole, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Jason M. Fletcher, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, criticizes the methodology of the Christakis-Fowler team, saying that it is possible to find what look like social contagion effects with conditions like acne, headaches and height, but that contagion effects go away when researchers factor in environmental factors that friends or neighbors have in common.
“Researchers should be cautious in attributing correlations in health outcomes of close friends to social network effects,” the authors say.
An accompanying BMJ editorial about the two studies called the Christakis-Fowler study “groundbreaking,” but said “future work is needed to verify the presence and strength of these associations.”
The team previously published studies concluding that obesity and quitting smoking are socially contagious.
But the happiness study, financed by the National Institute on Aging, is unusual in several ways. Happiness would seem to be “the epitome of an individualistic state,” said John T. Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, who was not involved in the study.
And what about schadenfreude - pleasure in someone's misery - or good old-fashioned envy when a friend lands a promotion or wins the marathon? “There may be some people who become unhappy when their friends become happy, but we found that more people become happy over all,” Dr. Christakis said.
Professor Cacioppo said that suggested that unconscious signals of well-being packed more zing than conscious feelings of resentment. “I might be jealous of the fact that they won the lottery, but they’re in such a good mood that I walk away feeling happier without even being aware that they were the site for my happiness,” he said.
The subtle transmission of emotion may explain other findings, too. In the obesity and smoking cessation studies, friends were influential even if they lived far away. But the effect on happiness was much greater from friends, siblings or neighbors who lived nearby.
A next-door neighbor’s joy increased one’s chance of being happy by 34 percent, but a neighbor down the block had no effect. A friend living half a mile away was good for a 42 percent bounce, but the effect was almost half that for a friend two miles away. A friend in a different community altogether can win an Oscar without making you feel better.
“You have to see them and be in physical and temporal proximity,” Dr. Christakis said.
Hmmmmmmmmm???? Now what cha think about this??