When my husband was recovering in the hospital ten 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. I was stuck on IF he would get better and leave the hospital. But 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 — gather strength from the ones we love?
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: it’s crucial to surround yourself with people who bring you joy and “fill your bucket.” It’s imperative to avoid those who are toxic. And keep in mind that your joy can increase the happiness of others.
“Rather than asking how we can get happier, we should be asking how we can increase happiness all around us,” Christakis continues 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, reminds us 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.”
This weekend, while browsing my Live Happy magazine, I discovered that March 20 is the International Day of Happiness. To celebrate, the folks at Live Happy are encouraging us to “march to happiness”, by performing daily act of happiness and sharing it with those around us, and on social media.
While I’ve never been accused of being a social media maven and I’m not too adept with hashtags, I may just give this one a try. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this bonus day in February than to prepare to practice and spread deliberate joys, both big and small, every day in the coming weeks.
And if I can’t always be a source of joy, I will be certain to find someone else to “catch” it from.
A version of this post ran on Prayers and Piazzas in May 2015.