When my husband was recovering in the hospital nine years ago from a life-threatening bloodstream infection, my worry level was consuming. It was most intense during the times when I was away from him, when the “what ifs” sabotaged my thoughts. But, strangely enough, when I was by my husband’s side, watching him breath, rest and heal ever so slowly, I felt better. The knots inside my stomach seemed to relax a bit. Because he’s an optimist, and is able to recognize the positive in nearly every situation, he was planning for when he would be coming home, while I was agonizing over if he would get better and leave the hospital. His positive spirit was infectious, and I found myself feeling more hopeful because of him.
“I gather my strength from him every day,” I would tell people, and I truly meant it. I still feel that way today. Perhaps we all do? As a wife and mom of three, I feel happier when my peeps are happy, and on the flip side, more affected when they are upset, sick, distressed. Which prompted me to search this up and see if there was something to that, scientifically speaking. Can other people’s happiness significantly alter our own level of happiness?
After a few failed search terms, I keyed in the phrase “is happiness contagious?” Jackpot. And yes.
“Everyday interactions we have with other people are definitely contagious, in terms of happiness,” says Nicholas Christakis, Harvard Medical School professor and author of a 2008 study dealing with the science of emotion. “We’ve found that many emotions can pulse through social networks.”
This study followed nearly 5,000 people for 20 years, and found that happy people increase the chances that someone they know will be happy, and that one person’s happiness can affect another person’s happiness for up to a year. “The power of happiness, moreover, can span another degree of separation,” writes Rob Stein in a Washington Post article on the study, “elevating the mood of that person’s husband, wife, brother, sister, friend or next-door neighbor.”
Excellent scientific support for something I have always heard: surround yourself with people who bring you joy and help you “fill your bucket.” Avoid those who are toxic. And keep in mind that your joy can increase the happiness of others around you.
“Rather than asking how we can get happier, we should be asking how we can increase happiness all around us,” says Christakis, in an article for Harvard Medicine. “When you make positive changes in your own life, those effects ripple out from you and you can find yourself surrounded by the very thing you fostered.”
Another Harvard psychologist, Nancy Etcoff, notes that happiness is in the little things. “Happiness isn’t just one big event, “but the accrual of smaller, incremental steps, such as feeling gratitude and helping others.”
But what about the flip side of happiness? Researchers found that unhappiness can also spread, but the “infectiousness” of that emotion appears to be far weaker, while the positive effects of happiness can reverberate for up to a year.
My personal take: choose joy at every possible moment, and if that joy can’t come from within for whatever reason, find someone else to “catch” it from. 🙂