The Happiness Contagion: Study Finds Being Happy is Contagious

Posted on December 7, 2008

A new study has found that happiness is contagious. The objective of the study was to "evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks." The study also found that a complete stranger's happiness is more contagious that the happiness of your family members.

The New York Times reports on the upbeat study in the BMJ that followed a group of over 4,700 individuals - and the people they were connected to - for 20 years from 1983 to 2003.

Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study, tells the Times, "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. 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."

James H. Fowler, study co-author and an associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego, told the Times 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."

But not everyone agrees with the study's conclusions Princeton emeritus psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman isn't buying it.

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.


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."

We're skeptical of the power of strangers in spreading happiness. Why would our own family member's happiness affect us less than the happiness of someone we don't even know? Does this stranger's happiness mean more because it is less understood or expected than that of a family member? However, we know crowd psychology is real so the spread of happiness overall could be a similar emotional mechanism.

CBS anchor Bob Schieffer reported on the study's findings.

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