Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
“People who post smiley photos on Facebook/Frowners attract happy friends.” (Nature, 2008)
Social Networks and Happiness
Would you be surprised to read the above finding from Nature, one of the most prominent science journals in the world? Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Harvard University, and James Fowler, a political scientist at University of California, advocate that our happiness is affected by our social networks in a subtle way. The research shows that within a social network, happiness spreads among people up to three degrees of separation. That means when you feel happy, your friend’s friend’s friend has a higher likelihood of feeling happy too. And, it applies in both real and virtual worlds.
Three Groundbreaking Findings
First, using data from the renowned Framingham Heart Study which started in 1948 with 5,209 adults in Framingham, Massachusetts, and is now on its third generation of participants, Christakis and Fowler indicate that everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends’ friends (two degrees), and our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees). Fowler and Christakis have found that if a person is happy, the likelihood that a close friend will also be happy is increased by 15%. At two degrees of separation, this likelihood is increased by 10%, and at three degrees of separation, this increase of probability falls to 6% but the effect is still significant. The finding has the name “Three Degrees of Influence.” We have already known happy people tend to cluster together and miserable people are more likely to have friends that are wretched. But what surprises us is that this impact permeates beyond our circle of direct contact to even people of three degrees of separation, who we might not know.
Secondly, an astounding finding from the Three Degrees of Influence is that it applies not only in reality but also the virtual world. Christakis and Flower conducted another study examining the phenomenon on Facebook, which has more than 120 million active users. They browsed through all of the Facebook pages of 1700 students at a particular unnamed university to see if people smile in their pictures, as well as whether their connections also smile or not. They found that people who put smiling photos on their profiles tend to link to one another, which clusters in very much the same way as happiness flocks in the Framingham Heart Study.
Third, one may wonder at this point, “what about sadness, does it also spread within a network?” Yes, its impact is however not as prevailing. According to Christakis and Flower, each happy friend increases your own chance of being happy by 9% in average, whereas each unhappy friend decreases it by 7%. This reflects the overall effect of all social contacts.
Two Inspiring Lessons
While Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, regards the study as “a stunning paper by two of the most respected scientists in the field” in a CNN report, it is important for us to realize the implications of the Three Degrees of Influence and happiness on what can we actually do.
Lesson No. 1. Happiness is not only an individual matter.
The research appreciably shows that taking control of our own happiness can positively affect others. Happiness is not one’s own business anymore.
Lesson No. 2. One plus one does not necessarily equal two.
Happiness does not spread among people in a ‘1 to 1’ manner, but infuses up to three degrees of separation. Your happiness thus depends on the pleasure of individuals beyond your own social horizon. The power of this transference of happiness is no more 1+1=2.
The Three Degrees of Influence shows that our community and social network are like a honeycomb in which people influence one another. This implies that the foundation of individual happiness relies on both individual and collective contributions. As happy people cluster together, a flourishing community is formed. And flourishing could grow to a larger loop of people at the community level, where individual well-being or happiness would be able to be achieved and maximized.
Therefore, while Marty Seligman stated the goal of positive psychology is to increase the percentage of the world population that is considered ‘flourishing’ from today’s 15.7% to 51% by the year 2051, it is time to stop thinking of happiness as a private business, individual and personal. This would hinder our effort to transform people into happy or flourishing collectively as a whole. It is necessary for us to realize that we, both you and me, have enormous potential to weave the fabric of our community, to make our community feel happier, closer and more flourishing for everyone, and to direct the flow of nutrients, joy, love, wisdom, meaning and empowerment to nourish everyone within the community.
Felicia Huppert, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University and I are currently working on a project about community flourishing with the purpose of enhancing our knowledge of this aspect that does good to the community as a whole. We would be delighted if more researchers and practitioners are to work together on this momentous area.
Community Spirit courtesy of sifah
Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008).Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal
Whitfield, J. (2008). The secret of happiness: grinning on the Internet. Nature