Sunday, September 13, 2009

On "catching" happiness

According to the research team Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, pioneers in the study of "social contagion," happiness is a large social network. From Clive Thompson's long assessment of their research in the Times Magazine:

The subconscious nature of emotional mirroring might explain one of the more curious findings in their research: If you want to be happy, what’s most important is to have lots of friends. Historically, we have often thought that having a small cluster of tight, long-term friends is crucial to being happy. But Christakis and Fowler found that the happiest people in Framingham were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren’t necessarily deep ones.

The reason these people were the happiest, the duo theorize, is that happiness doesn’t come only from having deep, heart-to-heart talks. It also comes from having daily exposure to many small moments of contagious happiness. When you frequently see other people smile — at home, in the street, at your local bar — your spirits are repeatedly affected by your mirroring of their emotional state. Of course, the danger of being highly connected to lots of people is that you’re at risk of encountering many people when they are in bad moods. But Christakis and Fowler say their findings show that the gamble of increased sociability pays off, for a surprising reason: Happiness is more contagious than unhappiness. According to their statistical analysis, each additional happy friend boosts your good cheer by 9 percent, while each additional unhappy friend drags you down by only 7 percent. So by this logic, adding more links to your network should — mathematically — add to your store of happiness. “If you’re at the center of a network, you are going to be more susceptible to anything that spreads through it,” Fowler said. “And if happiness is spreading more reliably, then on average you’re going to be catching happy waves more often than you catch sad waves.”
This sweeping claim set off a series of free associations in me, an inveterate introvert. E.g.:

1) Walking to work in Manhattan, where I might pass 1,000 people on my mile-long route, I've noticed that people look a lot better when they're with someone else -- happier, more intelligent, more energetic.

2) As Atul Gawande documented ably some months ago, solitary confinement is torture. It has taken hold through what also might be a kind of social contagion in the U.S. over the past quarter century:

Prolonged isolation was used sparingly, if at all, by most American prisons for almost a century. Our first supermax—our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement—was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois... In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.” But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual...The ruling seemed to fit the public mood. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, some sixty supermax institutions had opened across the country. And new solitary-confinement units were established within nearly all of our ordinary maximum-security prisons.

The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures.
3) The former king of the Himalayan kingdom Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, may have been onto something with his concept of Gross National Happiness as an aim of government policy. But perhaps instead of focusing on sustainable development, cultural values, environment conservation and good governance he should have focused on increasing social interaction.

4) I have often wondered whether people in countries that are poor but still organized around tight social networks, such as tribes, mightn't be happier on average than people in advanced industrial societies -- that is, if the country is not a failed state or ruled by a brute like Saddam, or by a regime that deeply intrudes upon and controls and distorts social and economic life, like Iran's.

5) On the other hand, the ancient pastoral ideal and classical dichotomy between the wholesome country life and the sordid, corrupt city is more or less a load of crap -- as are demagogues' paeans to the virtues of small town America. While cities can be places of both horrific isolation, human beings have at every opportunity voted with their feet -- and hearts, and minds - to place themselves in ever larger social hives.

6) Per items 4 and 5, I really have very little idea where human social life is most rewarding. I really should get out more. But it does seem that organizing ourselves in ways that maximize positive social interaction is the fundamental challenge of human collective effort. Perhaps Wangchuck's four pillars of "GNH" are at bottom means to that end.

1 comment:

  1. I have to question whether the study demonstrates a causal relationship, or merely a correlation.

    The study describes an extrovert's approach to relationships: "The happiest people in Framingham were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren't necessarily deep ones." Thus the study has, without setting out to do so, divided respondents into an extrovert camp and an introvert camp. And it has found that the extrovert camp is happier, on average, than the introvert camp.

    Perhaps extroverts are happier not because they have more, relatively superficial relationships, but for some other, unidentified reason. Maybe making a habit of introspection (which introverts tend to do) decreases one's overall happiness. Or maybe extroverts are more successful, on average, than introverts. (I believe North America tends to prefer and promote extroverts over introverts.)

    If that's the case, just multiplying the number of "friends" you have won't make you happier. Unless you thereby become an extrovert (contrary to your native inclinations) and reap the rewards.