A back-to-school pop quiz! Quick, answer this: Is our happiness…

a) Determined mostly by our genetic makeup.

b) Dependent on your circumstances (e.g., whether or not you have a sibling, live in a city, are wealthy, have married parents, etc.)

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c) Affected strongly by your neighbor’s best friend’s co-worker.

We often think only answer “a” is true—that our happiness level is just part of who we are, something we’re born with. But research suggests that only 50 percent of our happiness is a product of our genes.

And though “b” is a tempting answer as well—don’t we all secretly think we’ll achieve true happiness when we find our soul mate or land the perfect job?—studies show only 10 percent of our happiness depends on our circumstances.

Believe it or not, if you chose “c,” you’re right: Our social networks profoundly influence our own happiness!

Here’s why: Our friends influence what we think of as normal, and that, in turn, influences our habits, feelings, and behavior.

That’s a major insight of research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, who wrote the fascinating book Connected: How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you feel, think, and do.

I saw this play out in my own life just the other night, when I went to dinner with a dear friend who battles the bulge. We were at a particularly fabulous restaurant, and he couldn’t decide what he wanted. So he ordered two entrées.

What if all my friends did that? I’d definitely pack on a few extra pounds. Just in that one dinner with my friend—even though I wasn’t tempted to over-order along with him—I ate more than I usually would. Imagine if I started seeing his size or his ordering habits as normal.

The MOST AMAZING thing about this research is how far-reaching and contagious our behaviors can be: We are influenced by people in our network who are three degrees away.

In other words, my next-door neighbor’s best-friend’s co-worker—whom I’ve never met—influences my eating and exercise habits, and therefore how much I weigh. She also profoundly influences how happy or anxious I am.

In fact, if we have a friend who has become happier in the last six months, we are a whopping 45 percent more likely to become happier ourselves.

And the happiness doesn’t stop there: It also affects our friends, and their friends.

“Changes in individual happiness can ripple through social connections and create large-scale pattern in the network,” write Christakis and Fowler, “giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals.”

Forget the Prozac, people, and focus on your friends. (Okay, not really. Please consult your doctor first.)

Research suggests that happiness is a set of skills we can teach and practice with our children. But, it turns out, the people in our social networks—in schools, especially, because proximity plays a role—are also teaching and practicing things that influence how happy our kids are.

Think about your friends. Are they a little weak in the happiness department? Are they super-busy and talking obsessively about our country’s leadership problems? Are they always complaining about how they hate their boss and how their son’s teacher is an idiot? Are they burdened by a classmate’s peanut allergy or whiny about a hubby who never gets his socks in the hamper?

Or maybe you have friends with excellent happiness habits. Perhaps they are more grateful for what they have than whiny about what they don’t. Maybe your friends get lots of exercise, and enough sleep, have tight connections to friends and family, and these things make them frequently cheerful.

Our habits make us happy—or not. And our habits are influenced, in large part, by our friends’ habits. What do we see as normal? Busyness and cynicism? Or gratitude and mindfulness? Materialism and fancy vacations? Or time with close friends and dinner at home? 

A caveat: Did you just read this and start thinking: “OMG, my friends are those complainers Christine describes”? For crying out loud, don’t drop your friends. The answer is NOT to get out of your social network, or to start passing judgement on your neighbors—not a happiness habit!—but rather to INFLUENCE the happiness of your network.

Our social connections influence our happiness, and we influence the happiness of our social connections. This does not mean that we should try to be happy all of the time (never complaining) or that someone’s happiness (or weight, for that matter) is entirely contagious.  While all three of those choices in the above pop quiz do affect how happy we are, we often overlook the invisible ties we have to everyone in our social networks.

This means that increasing your own happiness, and the happiness of your children, is a great way to contribute to the greater good.  And encouraging happiness habits among your friends has positive ripple effects throughout their social networks, your family included.

I hope you will join our discussion about this! Leave a comment below with ways that you see yourself influencing others’ happiness, and vice versa.


© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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