One of the basic presuppositions of sociology is that we cannot understand why we act and think the ways we do without taking into account our relationships with others. In other words, we must take seriously the significance of place. Research can help us to better understand the nature of the relationship between our individual thoughts and feelings and the social positions we occupy.

A recent study looked at the relationship between happiness and social networks, and CNN summarized the results using the expression “Happiness is contagious.” They reported that:

If you’re feeling great today, you may end up inadvertently spreading the joy to someone you don’t even know.

New research shows that in a social network, happiness spreads among people up to three degrees removed from one another. That means when you feel happy, a friend of a friend of a friend has a slightly higher likelihood of feeling happy too.

In their coverage of the research, Time Magazine dubs it “The Happiness Effect,” and asks, “Can you catch a case of happy?” They report that:

Increasingly, the answer seems to be yes. That’s the intriguing conclusion from a body of work by Harvard social scientist Dr. Nicholas Christakis and his political-science colleague James Fowler at the University of California at San Diego. The pair created a sensation with their announcement earlier this month of a 20-year study showing that emotions can pass among a network of people up to three degrees of separation away, so your joy may, to a larger extent than you realize, be determined by how cheerful your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if some of the people in this chain are total strangers to you.

Fowler and Christakis present their research results in a December 2008 issue of BMJ (the British Medical Journal)  titled “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.” In that article they report (emphasis added):

While there are many determinants of happiness,whether an individual is happy also depends on whether others in the individual’s social network are happy. Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people. The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network. Happiness, in other words, is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice but is also a property of groups of people.

Christakis and Fowler also provide perspective on their research in an article they wrote for John Brockman’s Edge: The Third Culture titled “Social Networks and Happiness.” Here they summarize their research this way:

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%.

And then they follow up this summary with what I think is the money quote from a sociological perspective:

Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon.

Both the BMJ article and the Edge article are well worth reading as they raise important questions about who we are, how we think, and even what we feel. In the Edge article they even begin a prelinary extension of their research into an analysis of online social networks such as Facebook.

There was also a report on the research in the New York Times (“Strangers May Cheer You Up, Study Says“) in which they provide a graphic representation of happiness networks (click image to see full size):

Happiness Clusters

The Washington Post also provides a summary of the research in “Happiness Can Spread Among People Like a Contagion, Study Indicates.” They quote Fowler,  one of the authors of the study:

“For a long time, we measured the health of a country by looking at its gross domestic product,” said Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who co-authored the study. “But our work shows that whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a $5,000 raise. So at a time when we’re facing such economic difficulties, the message could be, ‘Hang in there. You still have your friends and family, and these are the people to rely on to be happy.’ “

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