It seems like common sense to think of other people’s happiness as separate from our own happiness, but even on the most practical level, it turns out that this isn’t entirely accurate. The authors of the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, sociologist Nicholas Christakis and political scientist James Fowler, offer an interesting insight into how sharing happiness works, which comes down to this: what goes around, comes around.
Without going into the details here of the research methodology or exactly how they’re describing and measuring happiness, which are described in the book itself, what Christakis and Fowler find in their own and others’ research is that making people around us happy tends to automatically increase our own happiness.
As a broad generalization, if a friend, family member, coworker, or anyone we associate with on a regular basis (for shorthand, let’s call this person a “friend,” although they don’t literally need to be one) is happy, our own chances of being happy are increased by 15%. That may not seem like much, but if we think about how many people we associate with directly on a regular basis, it becomes clear that we have a lot of opportunities to get happy.
What’s more, happiness doesn’t even need to spread directly: it can spread indirectly through social networks, so that if a friend of a friend (or your brother-in-law’s co-worker, or your friend’s teacher) is happy, that friend of a friend increases our own chances of being happy by 10%, even though we may not associate directly with that person. Even a friend of a friend of a friend‘s happiness gives us a 6% better chance of being happy ourselves. The effect vanishes into statistical insignificance after that third step, but the strange and wonderful truth is that if your co-worker’s daughter’s hairdresser is happy, you yourself have better than a 1 in 20 chance of being happy yourself. The effect is especially strong with people we interact with daily: the more interaction, the stronger the effect (within limits).
To some extent bad moods can flow through social networks just like good moods, though, so having one happy friend and half a dozen miserable ones is likely to make happiness difficult to attain–which is all the more reason for caring about the happiness of other people in our lives.
So helping those around us with their goals, health, happiness, etc. can have a profound effect on our moods. And while the effects of helping others are limited, according to research, the effects of really making a difference in someone’s life can sometimes affect their level of happiness for up to two years. Repeated attempts to help others can contribute to their happiness (and therefore often to our own happiness) over and over, throughout a lifetime. It also tends to make our social networks larger and stronger, which itself makes significant contributions to our well-being.
Photo by Swamibu