Thanks to Anne for calling my attention to this study, which presents evidence supporting the commonly held belief that happiness is contagious. Apparently the happiness contagion is more virulent among non-intimate members of one’s social network — neighbors and acquaintances, though curiously not coworkers. I was struck by this observation from political scientist Robert Fowler, one of the co-investigators:
For a long time, we measured the health of a country by looking at its gross domestic product. But our work shows that whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a US$5,000 raise.
Presumably this remark is meant to reassure less affluent readers — and less affluent nations — that money can’t buy you happiness. However, the implication is that money and happiness are positively correlated. How much is a friend’s friend’s happiness worth? $5,500? $6,000? Or is it the other way around — people who make more money also have happier friends and associates? The researchers re-evaluated data gathered in the Framingham Heart Study ,a massive project that’s been following the same individuals for decades. Though the write-ups describe the results as causative — your neighbor’s happiness makes you happier as well — I’m pretty sure that the findings were derived from cross-sectional samples; i.e., measurements of happiness captured at a particular moment in time. If so, then all one can legitimately infer is that happy people tend to congregate together. And also that people with happy friends make more money than people with unhappy friends. By implication from Fowler’s remark, happiness and money go together. So what we see are networks of happy, affluent people hanging around together. The researchers also found that unhappiness doesn’t cluster as tightly — by implication, then, less affluent, less happy people find themselves more socially isolated. Of course I haven’t read a detailed description of this study so maybe I’m just being pessimistic.
Anyhow, yesterday at the grocery store checkout line I enjoyed one of those happy encounters with a distant member of my social network. The guy scanning my groceries noticed that I’d bought a bottle of peach-flavored iced tea. This is good stuff, he noted: it comes from Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is the bottled tea capital of America. I had no idea. I also had no idea that people from Schuylkill County PA have the highest per-capita alcohol consumption in the USA. I wondered whether they mixed their booze with the iced tea. And so on, passing the time with idle chatter. I left the store on a happy note that actually persisted for maybe the next hour and, though I can’t be sure, I suspect that I spread my good cheer to my wife and daughter.
In contrast, the day after the presidential elections, also at the grocery checkout, I had an unhappy encounter with a fellow shopper. I was heading for the shortest line with my shopping cart when I noticed a woman, sans groceries, standing at the end of line. You’re kidding, I said to her. No, she said: my husband is on his way with the cart. And you’re saving a place? Yes, and our cart is REALLY full. But you can’t do that, I objected. The woman disagreed: where does it say that you have to have a cart to stand in line? It’s just not courteous, I countered. In fact, I said to the checkout lady, I’d like to register a complaint about this woman. You’re kidding, the woman blocking my way said. No I’m not. Oh bugger off, she said to me; get a life. Go fuck yourself, I replied. And here comes the husband with the full grocery cart. You can’t talk that way to my wife; you’re bullying a woman. Oh please, I said, she’s the one who told me to bugger off. So the husband and I stood there toe to toe yelling at each other. I’m going to call the police, he said; go ahead, said I. Somebody who works at the store intervened: please guys, take it easy. Meanwhile the checkout line had emptied out and the checker started scanning this pushy couple’s groceries. My line had now cleared as well (it was the principle of the thing for me, not so much the time I would save), so I too was getting processed. The delay was minimal, but I’d have to say that the unhappiness I acquired from this encounter lasted just about as long as my happy encounter from yesterday, and was just as contagious.