As just one of the fascinating results of recent research into social networks is the fact that happiness (and sadness) spread through social networks like headcolds. We are influencing — and influenced by — people up to three connections away from us in our social networks.
Social Networks And Happiness, Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler
Happiness is a fundamental object of human existence. To the extent that it is synonymous with pleasure, it could even be said to be one of the “two sovereign masters” that, Jeremy Bentham argued, govern our lives. The other master, lest we forget, is pain.
Our happiness is determined by a complex set of voluntary and involuntary factors, ranging from our genes to our health to our wealth. Alas, one determinant of our own happiness that has not received the attention it deserves is the happiness of others. Yet we know that emotions can spread over short periods of time from person to person, in a process known as “emotional contagion.” If someone smiles at you, it is instinctive to smile back. If your partner or roommate is depressed, it is common for you to become depressed.
But might emotions spread more widely than this in social networks—from person to person to person, and beyond? Might an individual’s location within a social network influence their future happiness? And might social network processes—by a diverse set of mechanisms—influence happiness not just fleetingly, but also over longer periods of time?
We recently published a paper in the British Medical Journal that addressed these questions. We studied 4,739 people followed from 1983 to 2003 as part of the famous Framingham Heart Study. These individuals were embedded in a larger network of 12,067 people; they had an average of 11 connections to others in the social network (including to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors); and their happiness was assessed every few years using a standard measure.
We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%. For comparison, having an extra $5,000 in income (in 1984 dollars) increased the probability of being happy by about 2%.
Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon.
Yet another example of one of my maxims: most of what we think we know about people is wrong.
The conventional wisdom is that our emotional state — while influenced by other people — is principally an output of our individual personality and the way that we process events in our lives. But this orthodoxy is turned upside down by actual science.
The graphic above is the result of an analysis of 353 students with Facebook accounts, tracking people that appear in photos together. As you can see, smiling people are generally arm-in-arm with other smiling people, and likewise with frowners. But more interesting: those that are smiling have more friends, about one extra friend on the average. As the authors say,
If you smile, you are less likely to be on the periphery of the online world. It thus seems to be the case, online as well as offline, that when you smile, the world smiles with you.