Friday, December 05, 2008

The happiness contagion

Many people are often startled by my reply when they ask about the purpose of meditation. "It's to learn how to be happy," I typically respond. That sounds selfish to some people. But I have long contended that our own happiness has the effect of promoting happiness in others.

This morning I came across an article entitled "Study Finds Happiness Is Infectious" that says pretty much the same thing. Here's how it gets started:
Forget six degrees of separation. How about three degrees of happiness? Researchers from Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego have mapped the relationships of happy people and found that happiness is a collective phenomenon that spreads like a virus through social networks - affecting even strangers three times removed from each other.

The theory builds on the notion of emotional contagion, the process at work when a person smiles back at someone who smiles at him. Human emotions appear in clusters, behaving like stampeding animals, says study co-author Nicholas Christakis.

"You would never think to ask a particular buffalo in a herd, ‘Why are you running to the left?'" says the Harvard Medical School sociology professor. "The whole herd is running to the left."

Misery, on the other hand, does not love company as much as happiness does. "Unhappiness doesn't spread as intensely or as consistently as happiness," he says.

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