The Odd (But Awesome) Way Happiness Is Contagious

It turns out there’s a solid reason for the term “infectious joy”—research confirms happiness really can be caught.

bettie and friends beach.jpg


In a 20-year longitudinal study of almost 5,000 people that was published in 2008, researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at San Diego found evidence for “clusters of happiness.” The sunny emotion was shown to spread across social networks, extending up to three degrees of separation—as in, it can spread to the friends of your friends’ friends. Neighbors seem to be most influential—if one becomes happy, the other is 34% more likely to follow suit; an upbeat friend who lives about a mile away boosts your happiness odds by 25%; spousal influence is 8%; nearby siblings: 14%.

“Emotional contagion is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past,” says study co-author Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, a physician, sociologist, and director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University. “One can think of emotions as a primitive form of communication: it is of use to me to notice and copy your fear, disgust, anger, or happiness.” Indeed, these less pleasant emotions are contagious too, so just be mindful of this subconscious influence we can have on each other’s moods.

A study published in PLoS ONE showed that you can pick up someone’s joy just by watching someone else watching the happy person (like a happiness middleman!), meaning our moods can affect people we don’t even know—and theirs ours, and without our awareness. 

A joy transfer can take place even if you’re not physically near the person: a study that Christakis co-authored in 2014 found that emotions also spread among friends on Facebook. “When people make a positive change in their lives by being or acting happy or optimistic, they not only benefit themselves but many others – and those others are generally people they care about,” Christakis says.

~This article by Tori Rodriguez was originally published by Prevention Magazine.~