Monday, December 8, 2008

Happiness is infectious

An amusing cartoon in a men's magazine shows a doctor examining a poor guy whose face and genitals are covered in ugly red spots. The patient reminisces sadly: "The thing that attracted me most about that woman was her infectious laughter."

A recent study on the theme of happiness, published in the British Medical Journal, concludes that the best way to attain happiness is to be surrounded by happy people. To my mind, that earth-shaking conclusion is on a par with the affirmation that it's better to be happy, healthy and wealthy rather than sad, sick and penniless. One of the researchers, the Californian political scientist James Fowler, hit upon an elegant metaphor, suggesting that the contagion of happy emotions within a social network is a little like catching an STD (sexually transmitted disease). He explained: "Happiness not only spreads from person to person but also from person to person to person. [...] For example, in a network of sexual partners, if you have many partners and your partners have many partners, you are more susceptible to catching an STD."

An observer might wonder whether research of this kind is truly scientific, or whether we should be skeptical of such would-be studies. A critic said: "Friends select people to be their friends based on similar characteristics, and potentially happy people choose to be friends with other happy people." Fowler reacted: "The whole point of science is that you want to capture a great idea but then retain healthy skepticism." I agree. Happiness is a great idea. If science can indeed capture what it's all about, then so much the better for science and for all of us. Meanwhile, I'm immensely happy to remain a healthy skeptic.

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