Tolstoy was right. In a sense . All happy families are similar. But a brilliant study, just out in the BMJ, drawn from 20 years of epidemiological research in the Framingham Heart Study, illustrates how. Authors JH Fowler and NA Christakis trace the workings of social networks and the “contagion” of happiness among nearby friends and neighbors.

They show the enormous power of having happy friends. But first, it is helpful to have been happy if you are going to be happy. In fact, future happiness is 300% more likely for people who have been happy than for unhappy people. However we become happy, we have an enormous competitive advantage in the work of happiness maintenance, relative to those who don’t. And that’s just the beginning.

Next, comes association with happy people: significantly, these are the people with whom we identify— the guy next door, and nearby friends who feel friendly to us, too. As they become happy, we become happy.

The effect is awesome: happy people have the main court advantage. Because happiness affects all kinds of personal functioning, and because its effects are multiplicative, personal wellbeing among the happy skyrockets past its levels for unhappy people; and yields benefits.

Happiness, this study reflects, develops under the radar, through effective social interaction. It does not evolve in workplace networks. Perhaps our happiness at work is more internal: what it means to us. Back in the 1950’s, motivational research reflected that many of work’s incentives did not so much make us happy, but rather, relieved a sense of dissatisfaction. Withdraw the incentives and the dissatisfactions of daily life return.

But happiness exists on another level: it is actually attainable, in part, through social networks, through genuine associations with people who become mutually important to one another.

This is an important finding, applicable to us all: it is not just the mining of social networks that is critical to our well-being, but the active and positive contribution to others —- those efforts that evoke pleasure and the joys of gratitude in receiving—- that themselves redouble upon us!

Concretely, it might begin with passing on a job lead to an associate you know might qualify. Put yourself in her shoes for a moment. What might she feel? Relief, pleasure, care…. Happiness. Regardless of how it ultimately turns out, her view of you has shifted a bit: you have contributed to her happiness. And what goes around, comes around. Mutuality, collaboration—the positive acts that make others happy, ultimately make us happy as well.

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A Circle of Happiness


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