I read an interesting article in Ode Magazine yesterday. There’s now scientific research showing that happiness is contagious! This study suggests that if I’m feeling happy, there’s a good chance that my friends and neighbors will be happier, too. The analysis is distilled down to pretty significant numeric probabilities, based on degrees of separation in the relationship. The effects are so powerful that even if it’s a friend of a friend of a friend that’s happy, I’m more likely to be buoyed by that than if I gain an extra $5,000 in my pocket.
Pretty impressive, huh?
To me, this study puts a different spin on the idea of happiness. In particular, it’s a good reminder that my happiness isn’t just about me. It also affects those around me. I’ve been thinking about it in the context of the Metta Bhavana meditation practice, which is about developing our capacity for loving-kindness. In this practice, we actively call up different people in our mind’s eye and sit with our feelings of love and caring toward them. It’s significant that the practice begins with ourselves, where we contact our own happiness. But then we move on to sharing that feeling with a good friend, a neutral person, and finally someone we find difficult.
When we prepare the ground of our own emotional well-being in a positive way, everyone we’re in contact with will be affected by that. And according to this study, this is true even for people three degrees of separation away. Multiply that out to everybody I encounter in a day, and then all the people they encounter… and suddenly it’s a massive number of people! I assume the opposite is true too – our bad moods are just as likely to spread. This really brings home to me the Buddha’s teaching on interconnectedness. I’m not an island. I don’t live in some isolated bubble of my own world. What I think and do really does matter.
All this spurs me to feel more responsible for myself and how I am in the world. I feel compelled to continue working to be happier and open up my heart. It’s part of a much bigger picture about being more sensitive and careful about how I tread in this highly interconnected world. I DO matter, so I’m renewing my efforts to be as positive an influence as I can be.
Full text of the research:
Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study by James H Fowler and Nicholas A Christakis