Birds of a Feather, Part I: Small Moments of Contagious Happiness

The July Project: Day 8

Someone once told me, “Happy and successful people tend to be surrounded by other happy and successful people.” If we assume for a moment that it’s true, what are the implications? If you don’t find yourself in the company of people who are thriving, how are you supposed to get ahead?

  1. Trade in your friends for new, better ones.
  2. Keep your friends, but add a few higher-quality ones to raise the average.
  3. Concentrate on what you can do to improve your own life.
  4. Leverage your happiness and success by focusing on the well-being of the people around you.

It seems that answers C and D might be two sides of the same coin.

A pair of social scientists, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, were interested in the question of whether happiness and health are truly contagious. Do they spread among people like an epidemic? In search of an answer, they borrowed a mountain of data from the Framingham Heart Study, a remarkable research project that followed the health and behavior of more than 15,000 subjects over the course of three generations and 50 years in and around Framingham, Massachusetts. Christakis and Fowler made a social-network map of about 5,000 subjects and analyzed data about obesity, smoking, weight loss, and happiness.

They concluded, among other things, that the increase in obesity in recent years is indeed an “epidemic.” If a Framingham resident became obese, his friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese, too. And the effect goes beyond first-order connections. It turns out that our behaviors have a rippling effect on our friends’ friends, and on their friends.

The study has its detractors. Some say that the researchers didn’t adequately control or correct for “homophily,” our tendency to seek connections with people who already share the same characteristics and behaviors.

As scientists love to say, “More research is needed.” But what do we have to lose by acting on the assumption that Christakis and Fowler are onto something?

Humans are intensely social, highly connected creatures. We model and mirror both good and bad behavior. We influence and are influenced by one another in myriad ways that we can’t see or don’t understand.

Want to be fit? Encourage your friends to get fit. Concerned about the health of your loved ones? Take good care of yourself. Searching for happiness? Seize opportunities to share “small moments of contagious happiness” far and wide!


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