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October 13, 2011
A Happy Friend Living Within a Half-Mile Makes You 42% More Likely To Be Happy

Human beings instinctively look for associations with other members of society. Especially in times of stress and difficulty, support received from others makes us feel better and confident with less pain and turmoil. Research by Harvard Medical School and the University of California found happiness is like a virus -- it's passed through social networks, such as family, close friends and neighbors. Sadness, however, does not apparently spread to the same extent.

Research shows that the happiest people attract other happy people, usually within close distances. The study examined the happiness of nearly 5000 people in the Framingham Heart Study for over 20 years. It found that a person's happiness starts a chain reaction that helps their friends, their friends' friends, and their friends' friends' friends. So your happiness can be affected by people you don't even know. Amazingly, the effects can apparently last for up to a year, but do decay over time and with geographical separation.

How does happiness spread? The study researchers are unsure, but one way might be because happy people spread their good mood by being generous with their time and money. Interestingly, the researchers believe face-to-face contact is important for the happiness to spread.

Geographic Closeness of Friends Affects Happiness

The closer a friend lives to you the more likely they are to pass on their happiness, according to researchers. They say a happy friend living within half a mile from you means that there's a 42% chance of them making you happier. The same friend living two miles away only has a 22% chance. Distant happy friends do not affect your happiness.

A similar finding occurred for siblings, next door neighbors and partners. They said a happy next door neighbor, for example, has a 34% chance of making you happier. A happy spouse has an 8% chance.

Interestingly, happiness was not found to be passed on among co-workers.

Is There a Formula For Happiness?

A pair of British researchers claim they had worked out a simple equation to quantify happiness that could put an exact figure on the emotional state.

After interviewing 1,000 people, the researchers--a psychologist and a self-styled "life coach"--concluded that happiness equals P + 5E + 3H.

In the equation, P stands for Personal Characteristics (outlook on life, adaptability and resilience); E for Existence (health, friendships and financial stability) and H represents Higher Order (self-esteem, expectations and ambitions).

"This is the first equation that enables people to put a figure on their emotional state," Rothwell said. "The findings show that certain events, such as job promotion, can impact positively on your overall happiness."

Happy Talk

The science of happiness is increasingly suggesting a link between happiness and health.

Andrew Steptoe, the British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology at University College London, has found that happier people also have greater protection against things like heart disease and stroke.

"We know that stress which has bad effects on biology, leads to those bad changes as far as health is concerned," said Mr Steptoe.

"What we think is happening is that happiness has the opposite effect and has a protective effect on these same biological pathways".

Happiness Spreads Up To Three Degrees of Separation

The study found that a happy person can affect the happiness of others indirectly via other people.

Researchers measured the impact up to three degrees from the happy person. They say that a happy person can trigger a chain reaction that benefits their friends (42%), their friends' friends (10%), and their friends' friends' friends (5.6%). If this is correct, this means that your happiness depends, in part, on the emotional experiences of people you may never even know.

Happiness May Be Inherited

Some research has found that happiness is partly determined by personality traits that are largely inherited from parents. Psychologists identified common genes which express personality traits that predispose people to the sunny side of life.

"Although happiness is subject to a wide range of external influences, we have found that there is a heritable component of happiness which can be entirely explained by genetic architecture of personality," said Alexander Weiss, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh.

If future evidence emerges in support of the idea of inherited happiness, whatever joy that young people gather may somehow find its way, at least in part, to the next generation.

Your Happiness Thermostat Can Change Throughout Your Lifetime

Psychologists have long argued that people have a "set point" for happiness. Regardless of what life brings, the set-point theory goes, happiness levels tend to be stable. A big life event could create a boost of joy or a crush of sorrow, but within a few years, people return to a predetermined level of life satisfaction, according to the theory.

So besides geographical location to happy people, what else contributes to long-term happiness? Researchers have found several correlations between life choices and life satisfaction:

  • Marry well: The personality traits of partners influenced people's happiness. Neuroticism, or a tendency toward anxiety, emotional instability and depression, was most influential. People who married or partnered with neurotic people were less likely to be happy than people who married non-neurotic types.
  • Focus on the family: People who assigned relatively high value to altruistic and family goals compared with career goals were happier. Women were also happier when their male partners ranked family goals high.
  • Go to church: People who went to church more often were happier, though the study can't determine whether the happiness is related to religious views or to the social circle religious organizations offer.
  • Work, but not too much (or too little): People's happiness matched how well they felt their work hours matched their desired work hours. In other words, people who worked more or fewer hours than they preferred were less happy. Working less or being unemployed was worse than working too much, presumably because underemployment is a financial blow, the researchers wrote.
  • Get social, and get moving: Social interaction and exercise were both associated with happiness. Working out made people happier regardless of body weight. The only correlation between body weight and happiness was that underweight men and obese women were more likely to be unhappy.



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