“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
I am currently taking a positive psychology course and I wanted to read your article because I think that online social networks can offer a plethora of interesting research topics. I think it’s interesting that this happiness or lack of happiness can affect so many people up to so many degrees of separation. I’m interested to know your opinion of Twitter and Facebook where you can update your “status” to let everyone know what you are doing, what you are feeling, or thinking at the time. Do you think the negative things people post has a widespread effect, such as celebrities bashing other celebrities or telling us about their “terrible, horrible, No good, very bad day”? Could they possibly have more of an effect on those who read it? And do you think that happiness or sadness from reading these can be due to vicarious emotional conditioning? It is very curious that seeing that “Sally Jane passed her graduate comprehensive prelim’s with flying colors” or “John Doe’s car broke down today and broke up with his girlfriend” can have two very different effects on those who see that on Facebook or Twitter. I think the social networking generations have become very expressive generations, but sometimes those negative expression of emotions can be hurtful to others. Thanks for an amazing article! I look forward to reading your response!!! Thank you!
Very good article Tim on a subject that is very important.
It is funny as I recently came across a book called ‘is: The Phenomenon of the Facebook Status’ that gives an insight into life in the 21st century via Facebook Statuses and has been receiving fantastic reviews. But it did provide such a feel good factor in me reading all those statuses.
For anyone that is interested, it has a website with a Facebook Status Generator that has been getting a huge amount of hits and all the people at my Uni have been loving it.
Keep up the good work mate, looking forward to reading more of your stuff
I loved your article. I’m already a student of Seligman’s and I just got Nicholas Christakis’ book. I would love to see links to their social media profiles, especially Twitter and fan pages on Facebook. I love how social media helps me learn more about the people I’m interested in!
Thanks a lot for information in the article!
Hi Timothy – firstly I have to admit to not being a fan of fakebook. I have seen mixed research on the impact that social networking has on personal wellbeing.
When you say “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%” I have to confess to thinking so what? After all the so what question is critical to science.
Your article is timely and well written, Tim. A good P/N ratio can be achieved faster by the power of connectivity. As Haidt aptly said: happiness is BETWEEN not WITHIN.
Recently, I was asked in an interview for a magazine what did I do if in a team there some individuals that were too negative? Should they be removed from the team? My answer was that getting rid of negative people in a team is the very last thing you would do. The reason for that is not just good-natured optimism. The reason is based on science. In the 90s, I discovered that the key parameter that drives performance in a team is connectivity (Losada, M. The complex dynamics of high performance teams, Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 1990). Consequently, I always keep the negative people in the team knowing that the power of connectivity will amplify the good waves (not a metaphor, they are actually waves!) of the positive ones. I have worked with hundreds of teams, and I have yet to advice the dismissal of a team member to increase the P/N ratio. As they reach a high level of connectivity, teams always manage to go from darkness to light. But the light is generated between, not within. It may reside also in you, but it was generated in your interactions with others.
There is an overtone here that the effect is somehow causal, that happiness is “spreading”: happy people tend to make other people happy. Does the research support this?
In and of itself, the presence of some characteristic among a group that self-selects (even in an extended way) doesn’t mean that that is caused by the group. It might be the source of the selection in the first place. Attractive people tend to have friends who are of similar attractiveness, which these days generally translates into having linked Facebook pages. Does that mean that if a person posts attractive photos of themselves, then it results in adjacent people’s photos looking attractive? Obviously not, though you’re likely to see such a relationship if you’re looking for it. Race, language group, etc. would be the same. Why would you expect otherwise than that people who are of a particular disposition tend to group similarly?
I’m not saying that this couldn’t be more dynamic in the way the article implies, but taking a snapshot of how people tend to write is only describing a common tenet of friendship–similarity. Can you offer something further to illustrate the dynamic aspect?
It is amazing how far we have come, now our social worlds online can effect how we feel just by how our friends appear to feel in a photo. I know sometimes when I read other peoples statuses I smile because I feel happy that they are doing well. What about those that are already in a horrible mood or are sad, does reading about someone elses success make them feel better or worse because it causes them to feel some jealousy? I felt this was an interesting article and I enjoyed reading it.
Nice, Tim! As Chris Peterson says, “Other people matter.”
What an interesting article! I went on my Facebook to see my network of smiling friends, and I found that most of them are smiling, or at least in a funny pose or something positive. I was wondering, do you think the smiley face emoticons have some kind of positive influence on people too? It would be interesting to be able to start a wave of positive influence through cyber communication by knowing the power of a smiley face, since we are in such a technological age where most people clearly recognize the emoticon faces.
Thanks for the great article!
I have talking points I want to discuss, but so little time between eating, sleeping, and laboring. Please stay tuned to the comments section. We have a lot to talk about.
You article amazed me in the sense that it really happens in the real world and the virtual world. Even on MSN, people tend to put their smile pictures showing happyness as MSN icons with their friends also showing the same kind of things. However, people most of the time miss this vital phenomenon.
I think the “so what” on this is that there may be a happiness cost from associating with unhappy people and a benefit from associating with happy ones. To the extent that we choose who to be close to and interact with, this information could be used in our selection process. Now excuse me while I go “unfriend” all the frowners in my facebook network.
I appreciated your comments on this. I once had a debate with a fellow manager in the hospitality industry who was fond of saying in meetings, “if you are negative, I will kill you!” as a part of his anti-negativity policy. I suggested to him that the negativity represented some level of passion and energy that could be put to good use and he would be better off watching out for the apathetic employees who bring no energy to the organization because they simply don’t care enough to complain. Would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this . . .
Thanks Timothy for sharing the article with us.
Jeremy – you missed my point. Are they really happier (or are they self reporting)? Are they healthier? Do they have better relationships? Do they exercise more? It’s all based on assumption?
And unfriending seems to be not very community minded of you!!!!
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In regards to disassociating with unhappy friends, could there possibly be benefit of including one unhappy companion in a group of happy people? Perhaps, not only would this immersion benefit the unhappy companion, but also the positive companions may derive some additional positive emotion from the act of improving the mood of another.
What can be said of those going through an emotional slump, such as a mid-life crisis, and those who have discovered resiliency through coming back from the slump? Often those who have come out of the slump can share their happiness with those who have hit rock bottom, thereby providing inspiration and decreasing unhappiness. Even when placing a group of unhappy people together may result in happier people. For example, support groups, often full of sad people often produce a happier community simply through allowing people to share their negative experiences with others who understand. In producing “flourishing” population, it is surely necessary to convert our sad friends into happier friends rather than simply exchange them. Knowing that happiness spreads in this pattern, what is the best way for happy people to share their emotions with sad friends without also absorbing some of the unhappiness?
This is a very interesting article! After reading it, I am wondering if you could tell me, to what degree does empathy play a role in the Framingham study? Since we are empathic beings, is this likely the reason behind why we are so affected by our friend’s happiness, or as other studies have shown, sadness too?
Also, I was surprised to hear that our friend’s happiness has a greater influence over our own, than sadness does. Usually people say that it is easier to be brought down (emotionally) by another person, than it is to lift them up. In your opinion, does this saying still have any truth, after looking at Flower and Christakis’ findings?
Mary & Conor,
Facebook status usually is a kind of recall of one’s memory on current or just past experience and feeling. Research shows that recalling positive memory enhances our positive emotion. Therefore, positive psychologists advocate the “3 good things exercise”. The main difference between posting positive events or emotions on facebook status and practicing the 3 good things exercise is that the former is open to public and the latter is not. I assume who state positive facebook statuses, their positive experience and emotion are recalled and they are benefited from the extension of the “3 good things exercise”.
I personally believe facebook status has stronger influence to others in our social network than profile picture as the information people can perceive is more fruitful and specific. The contagious effect might be larger yet we surely need some empirical support to this proposition. And I am with Mary that perceivers matter – which each individuals will have different perceptions on the same status or comment.
Jacqueline, many thanks!
Comparing to the Six degrees of separation (or Human Web) experiment by Milgram, social media profiles obviously shorten our distance 21st century. However, when we claim that we can learn more about one another by social networking sites (which I believe we do in a certain extent), I am interested also in the role played by constrains like impression management and social desirability.
I am looking forward to your further research which might offer more insights on this. I am also very interest in social networking and well-being, please feel free to contact me through email@example.com for further discussions.
Good luck on your research and studies!
WJ, I have been thinking your ‘so what’ question and here is what I have reflected.
Science is amazing to some people because we can empirically test certain phenomenon with innovative and well-designed experiments. You might also ask so what if we know Milgram’s small world experiment that demonstrates the ‘Six degrees of separation’, but others are amazed how a phenomena can be proved scientifically.
Besides, every good piece of research should summary in what ways it add new values to what is already known.
On this topic, we’ve already known
1.) Happiness and well-being is related to socioeconomic and genetic factors
2.) Research on emotional contagion shows that one person’s mood might fleetingly determine the mood of others
3.) Whether (or how) happiness spreads broadly across social networks is unknown
According to the research by Christakis & Fowler, we have at least 3 insights:
1.) The ‘three degrees of influence’ finding
2.) Happiness spreads across a diverse array of social ties
3.) Network characteristics independently predict which individuals will be happy years into the future.
And of course the study is not perfect. I have high regard of the ideas and they way researchers try to support their hypotheses, but in terms of sample size and causal effect, I think there are still rooms of improvement. Yet, I still very much appreciate the new findings and their effort put on the topic.
I am a big fan of Losada Line (it is not surprisingly given that I was a master holder of I/O psychology studying team-based working, performance and employee well-being). I was impressed by your research on the differences in positivity/negativity ratio among high and low performance teams.
I am very glad to hear your comment, in particular the idea you offered can surely benefit the practitioners. I love what you say ‘As they reach a high level of connectivity, teams always manage to go from darkness to light.’ Connectivity is also what it takes for building a flourishing community, I’d say.
You support a completely discredited hypothesis (Losada Line)?
John, Given that this article was posted in 2009 and the work by Brown, Sokol, and Friedman to discredit the Losada ratio happened in 2013, I think you can cut Timothy some slack. However we appreciate your pointing this work out for those who come to the article today.
Joseph, I like your comment very much.
It is because before I writing this article I had a conversation with a couple of scholars in Cambridge on this topic. In the original research paper by Fowler & Christakis (Fowler & Christakis. 2008. Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.), causal effect wasn’t clearly developed enough even it is a longitudinal study, as we might challenge if it is A then B or both A & B are determined by Factor C (which might be similarity as you pointed out). And we also not sure if there are any mediators between A & B. I think you are making a very right point here. Thanks!
Andrea & Dave –
I think Andrea is raising a very interesting question which I would love to know the answer too. As in the quote from Dave below, Peterson always says, ‘Other matters’, I believe individual differences matters as well.
The same actions/words/attitudes might be perceived very differently by different individuals. The differences in perception might be a result of culture, context, personality and as what Andrea said, one’s current mood and emotion. There was a very interesting research paper published in Nature back in 3 years ago, titled as ‘Mood makes food taste different’, which examined how our mood change our tastes to bitter or salty flavors. It is worth to check out also if there is any research on how mood changes our perception of others’ happiness or fortune.
Jesse, thanks for your comment.
Jesse, thanks for your comment :).
A little experiment – are the above replies make you feel different?
I believe yes. I believe the function of emoticons includes indicating of our mood as well as transferring how we feel at one moment to another party in cyber communication. However I also believe the mechanism of processing emoticons is a very complex dynamic, in which many other variables also play a role. It is an important and interesting question yet I don’t think it is as simple as it sounds like. We know emotions are contagious, but how? The mechanism of this topic might be a significant research area nowaday.
There are some relevant research on this topic which I think you would be very interested in. There is an article from ABC News – Can You Smile Your Way to Success?
It contains good and fruitful neuroscience research and evidence that something as simple as a smiling face, or a picture of puppies, can elevate your mood enough to see the bigger picture and make better decision. Enjoy.
Kenny – As you are a high school teacher, I am very interested in your experience on transferring positive emotion towards your students. Best, T
As long as people are happier (no matter it is from objective-rating or self report), research does support that happier people are associated with various better outcomes, including better health, better interpersonal relationships, and better health life expectancy. One research even demonstrates when factors such as genes, immune system and other variables are controlled, happier people have better protection from virus attack. These beneficial outcomes obviously aren’t based only on assumptions but have been empirically tested.
This is a lovely article just published on Financial Times last week – Why sadness is good for you. It reviewed a number of studies by Joe Forgas, a leading expert on researching sadness. Positive psychologists never neglect (or devalue) the importance on understanding sadness or negativity and we believe every part of our humanity, feeling and emotion, is the way it is because of the actions of evolution over countless generations. What we can do is to ‘make use’ of negativity and other negative emotions wisely so that they benefit to individuals, organizations and communities.
Very well written and thought provoking article.
In regards Jeremy’s comment about watching out for the individual that doesn’t care. Is it the members of ones social circle’s responsibility to watch for the apathetic individual or the apathetic individual responsibility? From personal experience these individual do not always weight the effects of their positive/negative energy on others they are around. What if the employee is apathetic and positive? Is this good for the individual and/or their social network?
Quick personal story: I have symptoms of Asberger’s syndrome a form of high functioning autism. I am an extrovert but have always found it difficult to communicate positive and negative comments in a way that fosters positive interaction within teams. Therefore I display an introverted personality leaving me with a feeling of if I use my strength communicating openly and if I use my weakness of reserved communication the same result is attributed to me: Mediocre performing teams. I have adapted to get around this mediocre performing stigma by communicating strictly positive comments which creates a positive impact on my team but it doesn’t change my apathetic feelings toward what I am doing and the team goals.
No one would never know the apathy unless I disclosed it. When I disclose it I get the wrap of being a negative team member. Negative is the opposite of what I am accomplishing with my “quick fix” approach and further exacerbates the apathetic feelings.
Looking forward I have identified that I always need some baseline in order to see my clear meaning, purpose and value in team goals. This can be trusting relationships, positive reinforcement, organizational culture, repeatable schedule, or group support. The baseline doesn’t matter, I just need something that does not change in order for my mind to see constant meaning, purpose and value toward the team goal. I see these three Items as the key to true happiness. If the baseline changes then the feelings of apathy persist and happiness is left at a mediocre state.
Now I ask again, is it the members of ones social horizon’s responsibility to watch out for the apathetic individual or the apathetic individual responsibility? What would you do in my situation? Is it ok to define a mental handicap to members of your social network? I look forward to though provoking responses.
I was wondering that if the same could be said about sadness spreading as it is said for happiness, would it be correct in saying that it could apply to any emotion spearding through our networks? And if so, do we know why this is?
I would first like to say that your article is well written, seeming to start on a small scale and build outward. I really enjoyed reading it. Secondly, I have often had the feeling of connectedness with other people or being happy as a direct result of their happiness. I think that a flourishing community is where I want to be eventually in the workplace. However, I was curious as to what could be done for those who seem to enjoy being the wallflower or the one who just doesn’t “fit in”. What are your thoughts on trying to incorporate those people who are the most reluctant into the flourishing community- those who might benefit the most from its effects? Thank you so much for your time and thoughts.
Thanks for your insightful question!
I’d like to answer your 2nd question first. One very recent neuroscience research looked at the pattern of cerebral asymmetry in the perception of positive and negative facial signals. It shows that we can detect expressions of happiness and surprise faster than those of sadness or fear. Our brains get a first impression of people’s overriding social signals after seeing their faces for only 100 milliseconds. The study concludes that positive expressions, or expressions of approach, are perceived more quickly and more precisely than negative, or withdrawal, ones. So happiness and surprise are processed faster than sadness and fear making sense.
Re your 1st question, I am sorry that I cannot offer you a proper answer on the role of empathy as I simply don’t know. I hold, however, a similar assumption as yours that empathy might play a moderating role on the spreading of happiness or sadness. Though unfortunately I don’t have the actual answer.
References: Torro-Alves, N.; Aznar-Casanova, J. A. y Fukusima, S.S. (2009). Patterns of brain asymmetry in the perception of positive and negative facial expressions. Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, 14: 256 – 272.
Thanks for your inspiring question. Firstly, I think we should have a consensus on how to define, measure and testify what is a “flourishing community”. Like happiness and life satisfaction, flourishing is a subjective concept. Before it is operationally defined and a measure of it is established, it is hard to offer any interventions or try including different people with various personalities to ‘fit in’.
Besides, I think education helps. Education shapes our beliefs and values in a certain extent. The whole theme of Positive Education proposed by Marty Seligman might be an important tool for those wallflowers, or outliers I’d say, to change their perception and thoughts and be integrated into a flourishing community. I understand it is not an easy mission at all but obviously it’s a meaningful and significant one.
Thanks for your comment and inspiration again.
According to Christakis and Fowler’s research, sadness/unhappiness also spreads to 3 degrees of separation, but the effect is not as strong as that of happiness. (Also refer to my reply to Victoria)
In theory, other emotion should spread through one’s social network in the same degree as well.
Regarding why and how emotion spreads, you might be interested in reading: http://content.flkr.com/evan/Evan-EmotionalContagion.pdf
Thanks for your comment!
I appreciate your sharing!
Firstly, I believe everyone in our community has the responsibility to contribute to a flourishing community.
Besides, your experience is in line with the argument between hedonic and eudemonia. Clearly, one might value immediate disposition, pleasure, satisfaction and subjectivity more but others might value better the feeling of possessing the greatest goods available and fullest potential. However, my question is, do we really have to take the extreme of either perspectives, or we can actually achieve both or at least strike a better balance?
As they are not necessarily contradictory, why can’t a hedonism also work at something with constant meaning, purpose and value? And why can’t a eudemonism take the steps to enjoy the momentary pleasure in the process of achieving meaning and long-term happiness?
Thanks for sharing your personal story. To me, the very nature of your comments indicate that you are not apathetic. My definition of apathetic (in reference to employees) is one who does not express their feelings negatively or positively, not because of their particular communication style or level of extraversion or introversion, but rather because they simply do not care enough to do so.
In answer to your question, I think Timothy expressed it eloquently saying that everyone in the community is responsible for the flourishing of the community. Brian, your note shows your thoughtful analysis of how you are contributing to a group and your quest for meaning within the context of the group. Apathy is an absence of feelings and clearly you have some!
This idea that happiness, and to a lesser degree, sadness affect a social network seems to have great implications for families. It also makes it clear why community support centers (schools, churches, clubs) are so needed by families. Some families have happier natures than others (for whatever assortment of reasons). The community organizations are opportunities to get into positive communities, so that the families can share their strengths with other families. So that children, mothers and fathers are exposed to different options and different responses to different situations. In the mix, positive and negative interactions will bubble up, as their is no utopia and problems arise. In this way we can all learn from each other and help build each other into stronger, more compassionate and understanding people. We become larger than the sum.
Farkl? bir makale.Güzelbir bak?? aç?s?.Te?ekkür ederim.
Through Facebook and other similar social networks, individuals update their status’s frequently and share their happiness and sadness often. However, when it comes to the “friends” on Facebook that we do not know as well (maybe we took one college course with them and have not talked to them since), would the research show that we are still affected by their emotions?
Thanks Elizabeth! I love yours ‘we become larger than the sum’. Apart from community support centres (organizations), what else do you think we need for our positive communities?
Sarah – Yes. The principal implication by the research is our emotion might not only influence our friends but also our friends’ friends’ friends. At three degrees of separation, individuals’ emotions are still significantly being influenced.
Thanks for sharing with us. Very interesting and inspiring article.
People who post smiley photos on Facebook/Frowners attract happy friends!
I will go and try and revert back to you the practical result. thanks for sharing!
if a person is happy, the likelihood that a close friend will also be happy is increased by 15%.
I will try this, and revert back to you the practical result.
How might these ideas be helped and/or hindered by using social media, such as facebook by six degrees of seperation and three degrees of influence