When It Comes to Happiness, It's Contagious

Whether you spread it or get it, happiness is communicable.

Passing the baton.

Usually when we're talking about something being contagious, it's a warning about germs. You don't want to pick up this season's flu or the hacking cough of the guy sitting next to you on the airplane, and anyone with school-aged children knows that any formal school communication containing the words "highly contagious" is most likely to be about lice, pinkeye, or some other virus du jour. Contagion is bad, right?

Not always! It turns out that happiness is also contagious, in ways you may not have expected. What this means for those of us seeking to be happier is twofold. First, it means that---just as exposing yourself to communicable disease increases your chances of getting sick---you can "catch" happiness if you surround yourself with it; and second, it means that we have yet another great reason to work on our own good mood: it's actually a service to those around us, as it increases their chances of greater happiness, as well. Research on this very topic remains a hot area of interest, and new discoveries are being made all the time. Check out these happiness-contagion findings and see if any of them surprise you (I bet the last one will).

Proximity matters
Perhaps the most famous study in this area is the 20-year longitudinal one published in 2008, conducted by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, which concluded that happiness can spread through social circles in unexpected ways.

While the researchers weren't surprised to learn that your friend's happiness increases the chances that you'll be happier, they were amazed to discover a ripple effect of happiness which persisted through even multiple degrees of separation---that is, you're also more likely to be happy if your friend's friend is happy, even if that's someone you don't personally know.

This was the first study of its kind to suggest that the emotional "temperature" of a society or community as a whole may affect individuals more directly than previously believed.

And while that study emphasized physical proximity (even going so far as to find correlations between distance from the other happier person and your likelihood of a mood boost, yourself), in 2014 a follow-up study by Christakis showed a similar effect taking place on Facebook, where physical distance becomes moot. "Joy transfer" could take place simply through witnessing another person's happiness on the screen, whether you know them personally or not. This confirmed that surrounding yourself with happier people---either physically or virtually---has a positive impact on your own mood.

Smiles are significant
Multiple studies have shown that a "forced smile" (one which you set out to create, rather than one which occurs spontaneously) can boost your wellbeing and decrease your stress. The mechanism of this phenomenon most likely has to do with the brain's interpretation of those muscle signals (but don't think about it too hard because the notion that your brain is relying on your facial expression to determine your mood can be a little disturbing).

Regardless of how, exactly, it works, it does indeed work to make us feel better, whether it's a genuine smile or not.

Armed with this information, of course it stands to reason that once we know how a facial expression can influence our mood, social researchers will want to determine if said expression tends to be contagious, itself. Swedish researcher Ulf Dimberg constructed a study wherein subjects were instructed to view pictures of various facial expressions and respond in various ways. Even when subjects were specifically instructed not to smile at pictures of people smiling, monitoring of activity within their facial muscles showed an involuntary smile response. Smiling is, indeed, contagious!

Eau de happiness
This may just be the weirdest one, but you can't argue with science: A group of researchers in the Netherlands have just released a study about "happiness sweat," and just like smiling, it turns out that this may be another avenue of happiness contagion, too. Don't worry; it doesn't make you sweaty. Actually, the sweat secreted while experiencing pleasant emotions somehow conveys that emotion via scent. We've long suspected that "fear sweat" smells different than "regular" sweat (and this would make evolutionary sense, for fellow members of the species to be able to discern danger via pheromones), but this may be the first study confirming that those smelling this "happiness sweat" may indeed end up feeling happier, themselves.

What does all of this mean for you? It means you're spreading happiness just by being happy, and that you can go grab a boost off of happier people if you need one. Happiness is contagious, and that's awesome!

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