Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Who makes you happy?

Post 523 - Researchers at Harvard University and MIT wanted to see if a mathematical model developed to track and predict the spread of infectious diseases could also apply to the spread of happiness. They found that it worked.

They used data collected from 1,880 subjects in the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term research effort that’s followed people since 1948, giving them physical and emotional exams every two years. At each visit, subjects were classified as contented, discontented or neutral. The researchers monitored how these emotional states changed over time and how these changes depended on the emotions of the people with whom the participants came into contact.

When the information was put into a slightly-modified traditional infectious-disease simulation, the researchers found a correlation between an individual's emotional state and those of the person's contacts. In other words, it appears that you can catch happiness. Or sadness. Moreover, the "recovery time" doesn't depend on your contacts at all, which is a hallmark of diseases but surprising in an emotional context, since continuing contact with happy or sad people could be expected to affect your emotional state even after the initial "infection."

People were found to "recover" more quickly from being discontented than from being contented. On average, a contented "infection" sticks around for ten years, but it takes only five years to recover from a discontented one. The researchers focused on long-term emotional states because they’re more accurate measures of general life satisfaction than fleeting moods, such as laughter, which are already known to be contagious.

They also found that sadness is more contagious than happiness. A single discontented contact doubles your chances of being unhappy, while a happy contact increases the probability of becoming content by only 11%. It also appears that happiness is more likely to come about spontaneously than sadness.

So maybe Douglas M. Lawson was right on target when he said, "Happiness is a byproduct of what we share with others."

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