Research shows the dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network

2007_0116walpole0146Here’s one of my own blogs from WITR, written in January 2009, not long after the launch of the website.

‘Last week, the British Medical Journal published a very interesting article on the Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network. This high quality research involved a longitudinal analysis over 20 years of participants in a long-term health study in America (the Framingham Heart Study, see at end of Blog for further details].

The research involved 12,067 individuals who were connected to someone else in this population at some point between 1971 and 2003. Researchers measured happiness by a questionnaire and conducted a complicated statistical analysis of the relationships between people in this large social network.

They found that happy people tend to be connected to one another. The analysis revealed clusters of happy and unhappy people in the network that were significantly larger than expected by chance.

Happy people tended to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of happy people. The happiness of an individual was associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network (e.g. to the friends of their friends’ friends). People who were surrounded by many happy people are more likely to become happy in the future.

The study reveals that happiness is not merely a function of individual experiences choice but also a property of groups of people.

Moreover, it shows that ‘changes in individual happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large scale structure in the network, giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals.’

However, these findings did not allow the researchers to identify the actual causal mechanisms of the spread of happiness –  various mechanisms are possible.

This research, showing that happiness is a collective phenomenon, has relevance for public health. If clinical or policy changes increase the happiness of one person, they might have cascade effects on others, thereby enhancing the efficacy and cost effectiveness of the intervention.

Helping someone overcome an illness may not just enhance their happiness, but also the happiness of other people.

The research also has potential relevance to our recovery community. If people in our community are happy and this emotional state is reflected in their communications – particularly people who are at the core of the community – then we might expect happiness to spread through our social network.

In saying this, I should point out that this study revealed that the impact of happiness on others decayed with geographical separation. However, the impact of the internet would have been minimal in the time that the study was conducted. There is no reason to assume that a similar study conducted in internet-based social networks (like ours) would not reveal similar spread of happiness.

For now though, I would like to say the following. Be happy so we can enhance the likelihood of others in our community being happy.

And convey positive feelings and messages of hope. There is every reason to believe that ‘hope of recovery’ and other positive feelings and messages about recovery can be transmitted through our social network to impact in a positive way on many people.

Thank you.

[The Framingham Heart Study was set up over sixty years ago to help identify common factors or characteristics that contribute to cardiovascular disease (CVD). The Study began in 1948 by a sample of 5,209 men and women between the ages of 30 and 62 from the town of Framingham, Massachusetts, who had not yet developed overt symptoms of cardiovascular disease or suffered a heart attack or stroke. It has now followed CVD development in three generations of participants.]’

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