Harvard Study Shows Happiness Has a Ripple Effect, Spills Over to Others

Published: 08th December 2008
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By Dr. John L. Schinnerer

Happiness is catching. Happiness spreads through friends, spouses, siblings and neighbors. There is a ripple effect whereby happiness extends widely through social networks, even between people who may not know one another. One's happiness depends on the degree of happiness of those surrounding her.

Happiness depends upon the happiness of those around them

A study performed at Harvard University, by Nicholas Christakis, is the first of its kind to demonstrate the existence of clusters of happy and sad individuals. Happiness depends upon the happiness of those around them. What's more, individuals who surround themselves with happy people are more likely to be happy in the future. One's future happiness can actually be predicted by the number of happy people surrounding them and the degree to which the social network as a whole experiences constructive emotions, such as happiness. These findings come from an analysis of the Framingham Heart Study social network, a longitudinal study that has followed nearly 5,000 people for over 20 years.

Study findings suggest that happiness results from the spread of happiness throughout social networks and not merely from individuals choosing to surround themselves with like-minded individuals. For example, if your next door neighbor becomes happier due to a job promotion, your likelihood of becoming happier increases by 34%. And this happiness effect can linger for up to one year.

Three degrees of separation

The relationship between individual's happiness holds true for the first three degrees of separation. For example, when John becomes happier, it buoys the happiness of John's friends as well as the friends of John's friends. So there is a ripple effect of happiness within social circles where happiness is contagious and spreads similar to the waves of a wireless network. And we are consciously aware of little, if any, of it.

In the past five to ten years, more and more studies have looked at happiness and what determines it (e.g., genetics, money, elections, marital status and emotional management). However, no study has looked at human happiness as it relates to the happiness of others. While the study is the first of its kind and needs to be replicated to ensure the accuracy of these findings, the findings are remarkable and exhilarating.

Emotional contagion - Destructive versus constructive emotions

Emotional contagion, the process by which one person picks up the feelings of another, has been scientifically documented since 1994. Emotions may be 'caught' from others for a length of time ranging from seconds to weeks. This is particularly true of destructive emotions - anger, fear and sadness. In fact, the hard part is not 'catching' the emotions but in protecting oneself from them, keeping them at bay. Until this study, emotional contagion had not been documented for any of the positive, constructive emotions such as joy, contentment, peacefulness or happiness.

The difficulty is that most people primarily feel destructive emotions. Most people experience more destructive emotions than constructive emotions.

The Cutoff Point for a Thriving Life

On the other hand, roughly 10% of adults in the United States feel three times as much positive emotion as negative. This 3:1 ratio is the measuring stick for a thriving happy life as set by Barbara Fredrickson at UNC Chapel Hill. It appears that this top 10% is raising the level of happiness of many others. Imagine if it were possible to raise this thriving, happy portion of the population to 15% or 20%.

Possible benefits for society of a happier populace

Assuming the percentage of the populace experiencing happiness could be improved, here are just a few of the possible societal benefits:

• The economy would improve (e.g., higher ratios of positive, open-ended inquiries are present in executive teams in highly successful firms)

• Creativity would increase (e.g., happiness is necessary for greater innovation and open-mindedness)

• Productivity would soar (e.g., a happy employee is a productive employee; optimistic salespeople outsell pessimistic ones by approximately 38%; happy employees engage more effectively with customers)

• The burden on the health care system would be eased (e.g., happiness improves immune system functioning; teaching the skills of happiness and optimism reduces depression and anxiety).

• People would live longer (e.g., happy, optimistic people live 7 - 10 years longer than those who are pessimistic and unhappy)

• The educational system would show significant academic gains (e.g., students taught to be more happy and optimistic showed significant gains on achievement testing and received better grades)

Happiness is a learnable skill

The exciting part is that happiness can be taught. It can be learned. People can learn to feel positive emotions more frequently and more intensely. Emotional management is a learnable skill. Just as one practices a sport and improves over time so it is with emotions. As individuals learn to string together more and more happy moments, the ripple effect spills over and one person's happiness positively influences others. It even influences the happiness of other people they don't know.

The goal is emotional management. The goal is happiness. The goal is to learn to mitigate destructive emotions and encourage positive emotions. Happiness is social phenomena. The more individuals experience positive emotions, the more society as a whole is happier, healthier, and more productive and that is no small feat.

About the Author

Dr. John Schinnerer is in private practice helping individuals learn happiness by mitigating destructive emotions and fostering constructive emotions. His practice is located in the Danville-San Ramon Medical Center at 913 San Ramon Valley Blvd., #280, Danville, California 94526. He graduated summa cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology. Dr. Schinnerer has been an executive and psychologist for over 10 years. Dr. John Schinnerer is President and Founder of Guide To Self, a company that coaches clients to their potential using the latest in positive psychology, mindfulness and attentional control. Dr. John Schinnerer hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a prime time radio show, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Schinnerer is President of Infinet Assessment, a psychological testing company to help firms select the best applicants. Dr. Schinnerer's areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to moral development, to sports psychology. Dr. Schinnerer wrote the award-winning, "Guide To Self: The Beginner's Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought," which is available at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com and AuthorHouse.com.

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