Happiness Can Be Found in the Company You Keep

    • August 19, 2009

Happiness can be contagious, reports health policy scholar Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., an internist and medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School. In fact, it may be as easy to catch as the common cold if you surround yourself with people who have found joy, Christakis explained in his 2009 article in BMJ (BMJ 2009;338:b293), along with co-author, James H. Fowler, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of California-San Diego.

Christakis’ unique discovery about the nature of contentment earned him a slot as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009. His survey of data from the Framingham Heart Study revealed that positive emotions might be transferred from friend to friend. He examined the relationships of study participants over a twenty year period and discovered that “when a person who lives within a mile of a good friend becomes happier, the probability that this person's good friend will also become happier increases 15 percent. More surprising, Christakis wrote, “is that the effect can transcend direct links and reach a third degree of separation: when a friend of a friend becomes happier, we become happier, even when we don't know that third person directly.”

Building on decades of research (the World Happiness Database, for instance, established by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.) showing that people are happy when their needs are met—not just food, shelter and sleep, but love, appreciation, security and enrichment, Christakis’ work adds a new dimension to information about how people cultivate satisfying, emotionally healthy lives. Christakis, who focuses on social factors that effect health, health care and longevity, has also published groundbreaking studies on the role of social networks in the spread of health behaviors.

The Scholars in Health Policy Research Program is a national Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It supports work in economics, political science and sociology that may advance scholars’ contributions to health policy research.