Social networks and happiness

Social networks and happiness

Happiness is a fundamental object of human existence. To the extent that it is synonymous with pleasure, it could even be said to be one of the “two sovereign masters” that, Jeremy Bentham argued, govern our lives. The other master, lest we forget, is pain.

Our happiness is determined by a complex set of voluntary and involuntary factors, ranging from our genes to our health to our wealth. Alas, one determinant of our own happiness that has not received the attention it deserves is the happiness of others. Yet we know that emotions can spread over short periods of time from person to person, in a process known as “emotional contagion.” If someone smiles at you, it is instinctive to smile back. If your partner or roommate is depressed, it is common for you to become depressed.

But might emotions spread more widely than this in social networks_ã”from person to person to person, and beyond? Might an individual’s location within a social network influence their future happiness? And might social network processes_ã”by a diverse set of mechanisms_ã”influence happiness not just fleetingly, but also over longer periods of time?

We recently published a paper in the British Medical Journal that addressed these questions. We studied 4,739 people followed from 1983 to 2003 as part of the famous Framingham Heart Study. These individuals were embedded in a larger network of 12,067 people; they had an average of 11 connections to others in the social network (including to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors); and their happiness was assessed every few years using a standard measure.

To read more of the findings of this research – click here