[P]ositive emotions are contagious. Though some may need to make a concerted effort to change their basic outlook and increase their positive emotions or everyday happiness, others’ level of happiness can be increased to some degree merely by contact with happy people.
In one of our conversations the Dalai Lama said, “The creation of a more peaceful and happier society has to begin from the level of the individual, and from there it can expand to one’s family, to one’s neighborhood, to one’s community, and so on.”
These words take on even greater meaning in the light of some startling new studies on the contagious nature of emotions, showing how a person’s happiness can literally “expand to one’s family, to one’s neighborhood, to one’s community and so on.”
This contagious nature of emotions has been known for some time, and is based on research that shows that when we witness others expressing certain emotions, we tend to experience it ourselves. In investigating the brain mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon, some neuroscientists have come to believe that “mirror neurons” may be involved. A mirror neuron is a brain cell that fires both when performing an action and when observing the same action performed by another. It is thought that they may help attune us or help us resonate with the emotional state of others, and that they may play a role in empathy. In a stunning study published in the British Medical Journal (January 2009), researchers from the University of California-San Diego and Harvard University found that the infectious nature of happiness is much more profound, extensive, and long-lasting than we could have imagined, spreading in social networks just like a virus. They discovered that having happy people in a person’s social network can dramatically increase that person’s chance of being happy.
If you become happy, you increase your next- door neighbor’s odds of being happy by 34 percent, and increase your friend’s odds of being happy by 25 percent, if that friend lives within a mile of you! They found that the degree of the contagious effect depends on the type of relationship and also on your geographical distance from the other person. On average, however, the authors report that every happy person in your social network increases your own chance of being happy by 9 percent. It works both ways: Having happy family or friends in your social network increases your odds of being happy too. Remarkably, the researchers found that happiness spreads in a person’s social network up to “three degrees of separation.” Your happiness can affect not only your friend, but also a friend of your friend, and even a friend of a friend of your friend—someone you may never even meet or hear of. In addition to the longer reach of this transmittable effect, the durability of the effect is far stronger than had been estimated previously. In fact, the researchers say the effects of catching happiness from someone else can last up to one year! As the happiness and positive emotions spread throughout social networks, communities, and societies, the social benefits will spread and take root in a society right along with the personal benefits.
The role of happiness and positive emotions in promoting social change and building a better world goes beyond the issues we discussed here. For example, Ronald Inglehart, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, has done studies pointing out that increasing the average level of happiness among the population of a nation will result in an increase in freedom and democracy in that country. So, it seems almost as if the benefits of happiness and positive emotions are unrivaled. Instead of perceiving the pursuit of greater personal happiness as a self- absorbed, self- indulgent luxury, it could be argued that if you are truly concerned about others’ welfare and building a better world, it is your duty to be happy, or do what you can to become happier.