Column: If happiness is contagious, then how do you catch it?

(Photo by Siebuhr/Flickr)

You might have read this headline recently: Happiness is Contagious. The story made the pages of many major newspapers and Web sites.

I will recap.

According to the Associated Press, a paper published in a British medical journal found that happiness is contagious. People spread their cheer to loved ones, acquaintances and even strangers.

Researchers tracked more than 4,700 people in Framingham, Mass., who were part of a 20-year heart study. The researchers examined questionnaires that asked people to measure their happiness. They found that the more happy people an individual came in contact with, the more likely that individual was to be happy.
The study’s other findings are listed below in bold. My thoughts are in parenthesis.

  • “Happy people tended to be at the center of social networks.” (Most people have an Awesome Friend. This person sits at the center of a social network. He or she is trustworthy, fun and, more often than not, a happy person. When an Awesome Friend is absent everyone asks, “Where is Awesome Friend?” This is how you know who your Awesome Friend is.)
  • “Happy spouses helped, too, but not as much as happy friends of the same gender. Experts think people, particularly women, take emotional cues from people who look like them.” (This correlates a theory I think I invented – please tell me if it is not original – that super-hot women will not stay at a party unless other super-hot women are present and having a good time. [Hey, I used to spend a lot of time looking at women at parties instead of talking to them. I had time to notice this stuff.] And yes, I just bracketed within parenthesis. Somewhere William Safire is loading his gun.)
  • “Each happy friend boosts your own chances of being happy by an estimated 9 percent. Having grumpy friends decreases it by about 7 percent.” (Another study I read said that an extra $5,000 increases a person’s chances of being happier by about two percent. That means an unhappy friend equals $17,500 a year in lost happiness. Every pissed-off friend costs you one 2006 Honda Civic hybrid. Remember that next time your car hits a pothole and all four tires roll off in different directions.)

So how does one attain happiness? (At this point any other columnist would list specific hippie activities such as volunteering or gardening or painting tiny bluebirds on miniature tea kettles. Not this guy. He did some research.)

According to a recent study conducted by psychological researcher Daniel Mochon, rare, profoundly positive events will not make you happy in the long run.

Ancient humans, in order to avoid losing it every time an ice age froze mom or a saber-toothed tiger ate the good baby, developed the ability to return to baseline levels of happiness after tragic events. This adaptation is called the hedonic treadmill. It works both ways. You might be really sad right now, but eventually you will return to normal. On the flipside, you might be really happy right now, but that happiness will fade.

I actually wrote about this in a 2003 column on how marriage does not affect a person’s long-term happiness. To quote myself, “Marriage is like Fruit Stripe gum. For 10 seconds, your taste buds are treated to a crack-like euphoria. But the more you chew, the more it tastes like your mouth before you started.” I did not know at that time what I was describing was the hedonic treadmill.

Happiness, according to Mochon, is attained through many small boosts of joy.

Participants in the study were questioned entering or leaving places of worship. The more times people said they had attended a service in the last month, the happier they tended to be. A second study found similar results for people who consistently worked out at a gym or took a yoga class. Many small joys add up.

(Is this what happiness looks like? Yeah. That looks about right. Photo by Tarotastic/Flickr.)

All of which brings me to President-elect Barack Obama. (Are you serious, Joe? You’re bringing up Obama in the last paragraph of a piece in which you mentioned your Super-Hot Chicks at Parties theory? [Yes. Yes, I am.] Gun loaded, Safire heads off into the night.) Obama’s election was for many people “a rare, profoundly positive event.” Like all events on the hedonic treadmill, those good feelings will pass. Then it will be up to individuals to make their own happiness.

The good news is we now know each of us has the ability to create happiness, and that we will spread it around when we do.

(To listen to Chris Mosier, Sean Kearney, Carlos Jaime, Mike Costantini and me talk about this column on The Second Column podcast, click here.)

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • Abby Kincaid

    There is a Russian economist who thinks the only thing that is keeping the American economy from completely collapsing into a horrific depression is the happiness and hope people feel about Obama’s election. He theorizes that once Obama begins his term and the “hedonic treadmill” effect kicks in, i.e. people return to average and realize that he is not the messiah, the economy will collapse entirely. I don’t know quite what to make of this guy…but it does seem like a possibility…based on hedonic treadmill theory. And then, we’ll really have synthesize our own happiness.

  • Joe Donatelli

    Ha. Seeing how the Russians were very wrong about most of the 20th century, I am reluctant to throw in with that theory.

    Thanks for sharing, Abby.

  • silver

    Forget Fruit Stripe, the great tragedy of the human condition is that the each sip of Cream Soda tastes 40% better than the next.

  • Danielle

    I think I’m an ‘Awesome Friend,’ however, I also think that my friends Kelly and Selena fall into that category. Is it possible to be an ‘Awesome Friend’ and have a couple ‘Awesome Friends’ in your life? Jen is also an ‘Awesome Friend.’ Could I be this lucky or is it statistically impossible???

  • Joe Donatelli

    Yes, it is, and I agree with your choices. Jen? That girl is some sort of Super Friend. It’s the awesome power of shimmying.


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