Happiness ripples through social networks

This week’s British Medical Journal has a wonderful social network study that examined how happiness moved through social networks. It found that even when friends of friends become happy, the effect can ripple through and boost your own contentment.

It’s a wonderfully conceived study that looks at how people in social networks change over time, both geographically and psychologically. It turns out the effect is stronger if we live near the person, but happiness doesn’t ripple through workplaces, unless we consider the happy person our friend.

While there are many determinants of happiness, whether an individual is happy also depends on whether others in the individual’s social network are happy. Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people.

The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network. Happiness, in other words, is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice but is also a property of groups of people.

Indeed, changes in individual happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large scale structure in the network, giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals. These results are even more remarkable considering that happiness requires close physical proximity to spread and that the effect decays over time.

However, the article is also notable for being astoundingly well written. It’s not only a description of a scientific study, it’s a plain language guide to social network analysis.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a scientific paper that’s so clear and informative. If you want to learn about how social network analysis works, this is a great place to start.

Link to text of BMJ study.
Link to write-up from The New York Times.
Link to write-up from Washington Post.

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