Happiness and sadness go viral

Once again, research threatens to vindicate an old intuitive idea: that the emotional states of happiness and sadness can be contagious, spreading between individuals in much the same way that flu does. The bad news? It looks like sadness is far more virulent than happiness

In the current study, Hill’s team compared patterns of relationships and emotions measured in the study to those generated by a model designed to track SARS, foot-and-mouth disease and other traditional contagions. They discounted spontaneous or immediately shared emotion — friends or relatives undergoing a common experience — and focused on emotional changes that followed changes in others.

In the spread of happiness, the researchers found clusters of “infected” and “uninfected” people, a pattern considered a “hallmark of the infectious process,” said Hill. “For happiness, clustering is what you expect from contagion rates. Whereas for sadness, the clusters were much larger than we’d expect. Something else is going on.”

Happiness proved less social than sadness. Each happy friend increased an individual’s chances of personal happiness by 11 percent, while just one sad friend was needed to double an individual’s chance of becoming unhappy.

At this point it’s worth remembering (as the researchers themselves point out) that correlation isn’t causation:

Both Hill and Rand warned that the findings illustrate broad, possible dynamics, and are not intended to guide personal decisions, such as withdrawing from friends who are having a hard time.

“The better solution is to make your sad friends happy,” said Rand.

Amen to that.

2 thoughts on “Happiness and sadness go viral”

  1. Wait, wait, wait: the research results of researching a
    US town of 70,000 people
    are indicative of the general feeling of happiness/unhappiness *world-wide*?

    Please pull the other leg: 70,000 people in one single location is less than 3% of 1% of the total US population (0.023% of the US population). So a Framingham study will tell how, say, Californians or Texans feel? Let alone the rest of the world (you know, over 6 billion people: twenty times the US population)?

    I’ve grown up in a Dutch bible belt village: at 5,000 people they represent about 0.031% of the Dutch population. I’m fairly sure that a similar research in that particular village would show that the Dutch were, on average, expecting doomsday within the next 10 to 50 years; and that sadness would be fifty times more contagious than happiness. Most definitely.

    Then I moved to a nearby city called Den Bosch and my perspective changed hugely. Then I got a job travelling the world and my perspective changed even more profoundly.

    Sorry, but the results of *one small US town* do not make much of an impression to me. Let’s research the citizens of, say, Shanghai, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne, Mumbai, Alexandria, London, Caracas, and many more before we draw any conclusions of a sample of literally 0.0001% of humanity?

  2. Unless I’ve misunderstood the research, they’re talking about modelling the way happiness or sadness moves through communities, rather than the general levels of said emotions prevalent in a population sample.

    In other words, it’s like researching flu contagion: it doesn’t matter what sort of people the sample consists of, because they’re all running on essentially the same hardware. What matters is how the effects spread through the sample, not which effects are more of less prevalent.

    That said, your point is taken: generalisations about emotional states are hard to transfer between different communities, because worldview is going to affect those states at a very basic level.

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