In 2008, the British Medical Journal published the results of the Framingham Heart Study, a 20-year, 4,739 subject undertaking meant to evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person, and whether niches of happiness can form within social networks. The findings were remarkable: clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness – and not simply a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals.
Happiness, in other words, is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice; it is also a currency among groups of people. In fact, changes in an individual’s happiness can ripple through social networks and give rise to widespread structure in the network, birthing clusters of happy and unhappy individuals. These results are especially phenomenal considering that the spread of happiness requires close physical proximity and that the effect decays over time.
The results line up consistently with prior studies on the evolutionary basis and necessity of human emotion. Aside from their internal and psychological relevance, emotions have a distinctly social role. We humans experience emotions inside and show them outside. The emotion of happiness, the study concludes, serves the evolutionary purpose of enhancing social bonds, like laughter and smiling. These outward expressions solidify social relationships: producing, rewarding, and encouraging others through ongoing social contact. This paves the way for the understanding that great psychological, social, and biological rationales exist to vindicate the idea that social networks are extremely relevant to human happiness.
The study also bumped up against the apparent limitations of this happiness spread, reaching at most three degrees of separation, similar to the behavioral spread of obesity and smoking. Although the personal effect between individuals may be strong, there is significant decay before reaching throughout the entire network; the cascading bloom of happiness is not limitless.
One aspect of this study that will be of particular interest for future students is that the research did not allow for an indication of the actual, causal mechanics of happiness spread. A plethora of mechanisms are possible. Happy people might be adjusting their behavior toward others, sharing outward emotional displays in genuinely contagious fashion. They may simply spread their good fortunate in functional, pragmatic terms through social largesse or financial generosity. The most important takeaway here is that, however it occurs, an individual’s happiness is paramount to society’s widespread and lasting wellbeing. When someone is happy, others are too. When people share happiness, critical elements of life ranging from health to productivity contribute to the expansive nature of our understanding of quality of life.