[FoRK] [tt] [silk] Happiness Is A Network Property, Not Just A Personal State

Udhay Shankar N udhay at pobox.com
Thu Apr 5 03:36:11 PDT 2012

Utterly fascinating - yet if I think about it, not really surprising.



As just one of the fascinating results of recent research into social
networks is the fact that happiness (and sadness) spread through social
networks like headcolds. We are influencing — and influenced by — people
up to three connections away from us in our social networks.

    Social Networks And Happiness, Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler

    Happiness is a fundamental object of human existence. To the extent
that it is synonymous with pleasure, it could even be said to be one of
the “two sovereign masters” that, Jeremy Bentham argued, govern our
lives. The other master, lest we forget, is pain.

    Our happiness is determined by a complex set of voluntary and
involuntary factors, ranging from our genes to our health to our wealth.
Alas, one determinant of our own happiness that has not received the
attention it deserves is the happiness of others. Yet we know that
emotions can spread over short periods of time from person to person, in
a process known as “emotional contagion.” If someone smiles at you, it
is instinctive to smile back. If your partner or roommate is depressed,
it is common for you to become depressed.

    But might emotions spread more widely than this in social
networks—from person to person to person, and beyond? Might an
individual’s location within a social network influence their future
happiness? And might social network processes—by a diverse set of
mechanisms—influence happiness not just fleetingly, but also over longer
periods of time?

    We recently published a paper in the British Medical Journal that
addressed these questions. We studied 4,739 people followed from 1983 to
2003 as part of the famous Framingham Heart Study. These individuals
were embedded in a larger network of 12,067 people; they had an average
of 11 connections to others in the social network (including to friends,
family, co-workers, and neighbors); and their happiness was assessed
every few years using a standard measure.

    We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy
people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A
person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their
friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends—that is, to people
well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be
located in the center of their social networks and to be located in
large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional
happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about
9%. For comparison, having an extra $5,000 in income (in 1984 dollars)
increased the probability of being happy by about 2%.

    Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal
experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective

Yet another example of one of my maxims: most of what we think we know
about people is wrong.

The conventional wisdom is that our emotional state — while influenced
by other people — is principally an output of our individual personality
and the way that we process events in our lives. But this orthodoxy is
turned upside down by actual science.

The graphic above is the result of an analysis of 353 students with
Facebook accounts, tracking people that appear in photos together. As
you can see, smiling people are generally arm-in-arm with other smiling
people, and likewise with frowners. But more interesting: those that are
smiling have more friends, about one extra friend on the average. As the
authors say,

    If you smile, you are less likely to be on the periphery of the
online world. It thus seems to be the case, online as well as offline,
that when you smile, the world smiles with you.

((Udhay Shankar N)) ((udhay @ pobox.com)) ((www.digeratus.com))
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