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Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study

Objectives To evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks.

Design Longitudinal social network analysis.

Setting Framingham Heart Study social network.

Participants 4739 individuals followed from 1983 to 2003.

Main outcome measures Happiness measured with validated four item scale; broad array of attributes of social networks and diverse social ties.

Results Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals. A friend who lives within a mile (about 1.6 km) and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25% (95% confidence interval 1% to 57%). Similar effects are seen in coresident spouses (8%, 0.2% to 16%), siblings who live within a mile (14%, 1% to 28%), and next door neighbours (34%, 7% to 70%). Effects are not seen between coworkers. The effect decays with time and with geographical separation.

Conclusions People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.


Happiness is a fundamental object of human existence, 1 so much so that the World Health Organization is increasingly emphasising happiness as a component of health. 2 Happiness is determined by a complex set of voluntary and involuntary factors. Researchers in medicine, 3 economics, 1 4 5 psychology, 6 7 neuroscience, 8 and evolutionary biology 9 have identified a broad range of stimuli to happiness (or unhappiness), 1 including lottery wins, 10 elections, 7 income, 1 job loss, 11 socioeconomic inequality, 12 13 divorce, 1 illness, 14 bereavement, 15 and genes. 9 16 These studies, however, have not addressed a possibly key determinant of human happiness: the happiness of others.

Emotional states can be transferred directly from one individual to another by mimicry and “emotional contagion,” 17 perhaps by the copying of emotionally relevant bodily actions, particularly facial expressions, seen in others. 18 19 20 People can “catch” emotional states they observe in others over time frames ranging from seconds to weeks. 17 21 22 23 For example, students randomly assigned to a mildly depressed room-mate became increasingly depressed over a three month period, 24 and the possibility of emotional contagion between strangers, even those in ephemeral contact, has been documented by the effects of “service with a smile” on customer satisfaction and tipping. 25 26

Yet, despite the evidence that certain emotions might spread over short periods from person to person, little is known about the role of social networks in happiness or about whether happiness might spread, by a diverse set of mechanisms, over longer periods or more widely in social networks. As diverse phenomena can spread in social networks, 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 we investigated whether happiness also does so. We were particularly interested in whether the spread of happiness pertains not just to direct relationships (such as friends) but also to indirect relationships (such as friends of friends) and whether there are geographical or temporal constraints on the spread of happiness through a social network.


The Framingham Heart Study was initiated in 1948, when 5209 people in Framingham, Massachusetts, were enrolled into the “original cohort.” 36 In 1971, the “offspring cohort,” composed of most of the children of the original cohort, and their spouses, was enrolled. 37 This cohort of 5124 people has had almost no loss to follow-up other than death (only 10 people dropped out). Enrolment of the so called “third generation cohort,” consisting of 4095 children of the offspring cohort, began in 2002. The Framingham Heart Study also involves certain other smaller cohorts (such as a minority over-sample called the OMNI cohort, enrolled in 1995). At regular intervals participants in all these cohorts come to a central facility for detailed examinations and collection of survey data.

Network ascertainment

We used the offspring cohort as the source of 5124 key individuals to study—whom we term “egos.” Each ego in this cohort is connected to other people via friendship, family, spousal, neighbour, and coworker relationships. Each relationship is a “social tie.” Each person who has a relationship with an ego was called an “alter.” For example, one ego in the offspring cohort had 18 alters: a mother, a father, a sister, two brothers, three children, two friends, five neighbours, and three coworkers. We wanted to know how each of these alters influences an ego. Many of the alters also happened to be members of a studied cohort in Framingham, which means that we had access to detailed information about them as well. Overall, within the entire Framingham Heart Study social network, composed of both the egos and any detected alters in any Framingham Heart Study cohort, there were 12 067 individuals who were connected at some point in 1971-2003.

Ego: the focal individual; this is the person whose behaviour is being analysed

Alter: a person connected to the ego; this is the person who is potentially influencing the behaviour of the ego

Node: an object that may or may not be connected to other objects in a network; here, these are people in the Framingham Heart Study cohorts

Tie: a connection between two nodes that can be either one way (directed) or two way (bilateral, or mutual); here, all family and spouse ties are bilateral (sibling, coworker, spouse), but friendship ties are directional as a person might name someone as a friend who does not name them in return

Homophily: the tendency for people to choose relationships with people who have similar attributes

Component: a group of nodes that is a subset of a full network and in which each node is connected by at least one path to every other node in the same component

Cluster: a group of nodes of a certain type that is a subset of a full network and in which each node is connected by at least one path via nodes of the same type to every other node in the same group—for example, a cluster of happy people connected by at least one path via other happy people to all the other people in their cluster

Degree of separation: the social distance of two individuals as measured by the smallest number of intermediary ties between one individual and the other within the network. For a given ego, alters are degree 1 as they are directly connected to the ego. Nodes that are connected to the alters but not the ego are degree 2 (alters’ alters). Nodes that are connected to the alters’ alters but not the ego are degree 3, and so on. This is also known as the “geodesic distance”

To create the network dataset, we computerised information about the offspring cohort from archived handwritten administrative tracking sheets that had been used since 1971 to identify people close to participants for the purpose of follow-up. These documents contain valuable social network information because participants were asked to identify their relatives, “close friends,” place of residence, and place of work to ensure they could be contacted every two to four years for follow-up. In the field of network science, such procedures for identifying social ties between individuals are known as “name generators.” 38

The ascertainment of social ties in the Framingham Heart Study was wide and systematic. The study recorded complete information about all first order relatives (parents, spouses, siblings, children), whether alive or dead, and at least one close friend at up to seven examinations from 1971 to 2003. Detailed information on home address was also captured at each time point, which we geocoded to determine neighbour relationships. Specific information about place of employment at each wave allowed us to identify ties to coworkers within the network.

Our dataset identifies the network links among participants longitudinally, an unusual and advantageous feature. Over the course of follow-up, the participants spread out across the United States but continued to participate in the Framingham Heart Study. As a person’s family changed because of birth, death, marriage, or divorce, and as their contacts changed because of residential moves, new places of employment, or new friendships, this information was captured. For any given ego, a particular alter can be in only one mutually exclusive category—that is, spouse, sibling, friend, coworker, or neighbour.

There were 53 228 observed social ties between the 5124 egos and any other alters in any of the Framingham Heart Study cohorts, yielding an average of 10.4 ties to family, friends, and coworkers over the course of follow-up. Additional ties to neighbours were also ascertained, based on information about place of residence, but they are not included in the foregoing count as the number of neighbour ties depends on how “neighbour” is defined (for example, whether we restrict the definition to immediate, next door neighbours, or neighbours residing on the same block within 25 or 100 metres, etc).

Given the compact nature of the Framingham social network in the period 1971-2007, many of the nominated contacts were also participants in one or another Framingham Heart Study cohort 32 34 so we have detailed survey and physical examination information about both the ego and the alter. For example, 83% of egos’ spouses were directly and repeatedly observed and 87% of egos with siblings had at least one sibling who also participated in the Framingham Heart Study. For 39% of the egos, at least one coworker participated in the study. For 10% of the egos, an immediate neighbour was also in the Framingham Heart Study.

Importantly, 45% of the 5124 egos were connected via friendship to another person in the study; there were 3604 unique observed friendships for an average of 0.7 friendship ties per ego. There was substantial variation from person to person, ranging from several people with no friends to one person who was nominated as a friend by eight different Framingham Heart Study participants. Because friendship identifications are directional, we can study three different types. An “ego perceived friend” means the ego nominates an alter as a friend, but the nomination is not reciprocated. In this case the ego thinks of the alter as a friend, but the alter might not think of the ego as a friend. An “alter perceived friend” means that an alter nominates the ego as a friend but not vice versa. Here, the ego might not feel any closer to the alter than he or she would to a stranger. Finally, a “mutual friend” is one in which the nomination is reciprocal.

We can be reasonably confident that when someone names someone else as a friend, then the namer feels close to or esteems the namee. We should not, however, read too much into a particular failed nomination. The namer might have several equally good friends and might simply have omitted one or more of them. On the other hand, we would expect on average that people feel closer to the people they name than the people they do not name. By the same reasoning we expect on average that, in one way nominations, the namer feels closer to the namee than vice versa. We therefore hypothesised that the influence a friend has on an ego would be affected by the type of friendship, with the strongest effects occurring between mutual friends, followed by ego perceived friendships, followed by alter perceived friendships.

At inception, 53% of the egos were women; the egos’ mean age was 38 years (range 21-70); and their mean education was 1.6 years of college (range 0-≥17 years of education). Measures of occupational prestige for each ego at each wave were also available (see appendix on bmj.com).

We studied 4739 of the 5124 egos who were alive in 1983 (which was the first time happiness was measured in the Framingham study). All participants were followed until 2003 (at exam 7), as were any ties to alters noted during the time period 1983-2003.

We took happiness to consist of positive emotions and used a conventional measure. We focused on individuals who were assessed with the Center for Epidemiological Studies depression scale (CES-D) in 1983-2003 at times corresponding to the 5th, 6th, and 7th examinations of the offspring cohort. The median year of examination for these individuals was 1986 for exam 5, 1996 for exam 6, and 2000 for exam 7.

To measure happiness, we use four items from the CES-D in which people were asked how often they experienced certain feelings during the previous week: “I felt hopeful about the future,” “I was happy,” “I enjoyed life,” “I felt that I was just as good as other people.” This subcomponent of the CES-D has been shown to be a valid instrument for measuring positive affect, 39 40 41 and it has been taken as interchangeable with the concept of happiness. 42 43 We defined “happy” as a perfect score on all four questions, but we obtain similar results if we treat happiness as a linear 0-12 scale that sums answers to all four questions (data not shown), with 0=rarely or none of the time (<1 day/week), 1=some or a little of the time (1-2 days/week), 2=occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days/week), and 3=most or all the time (5-7 days/week). We performed confirmatory factor analysis and found that responses to these four questions were highly correlated with one another and therefore could be treated as additive measures of a single “happiness” scale, as documented by previous research (see appendix on bmj.com). 39 40 41 The response rate among those who answered at least one question was 98.8%. We imputed missing items using Amelia, a multiple imputation procedure. 44

We were interested not just in whether individuals were happy or not but also in changes in their happiness over time. We used the previous wave as a baseline measure and evaluated the probability of an ego being happy at a succeeding wave. At follow-up, the prevalence of happiness was 61% in exam 6 and 59% in exam 7. The mean index score was 10.7 in exam 6 and 10.6 in exam 7. Between exams 6 and 7, for example, 16% of individuals became happy, 13% became unhappy, 49% remained happy, and 22% remained unhappy.

Network analysis

Social networks consist of two elements: individuals (nodes) and the relationships (social ties) between them. Once all the nodes and ties are known, one can draw pictures of the network and discern every person’s position within it. Within a network, one can speak of the “distance” between two people (also known as the “geodesic distance” or “degree of separation”), which is the shortest path in the network from one person to another. For example, a person is one degree removed from their friend, two degrees removed from their friend’s friend, three degrees removed from their friend’s friend’s friend, and so on. Often, real social networks contain collections of subnetworks or “components.” A component is a part of a network in which everyone is connected by at least one path to every other person in the same component. Logically, this means that for two different components, no one in the first component can be connected to anyone in the second component. The basic idea in social network analysis is that individuals are influenced by their location in a social network and by the happenings among people who are “nearby” them in the social network (for example, at one, two, or three degrees of separation).

Once a full set of individuals and ties is observed, there is only one “network” per se. This network, however, can be analysed or drawn in various ways. For example, within this network, one might include only ties between people and their friends and spouses, or one might include only ties between family members. One might look at just the largest component or sample several hundred nodes from the network to study part of its structure more closely.

We used the Kamada-Kawai algorithm to prepare images of networks (fig 1 ⇓ ). 45 This algorithm is a visualisation tool that iteratively repositions nodes to reduce the number of ties that cross each other. The fundamental pattern of ties in a social network (known as the “topology”) is fixed, but how this pattern is visually rendered depends on the analyst’s objectives.

To test whether clustering of happy and unhappy people in the network is due to chance, we compared the observed clustering to the clustering in 1000 randomly generated networks in which we preserved the network topology and the overall prevalence of happiness but in which we randomly shuffled the assignment of the happiness value to each node. 46 If clustering is occurring, then the probability that an alter is happy given that an ego is happy should be higher in the observed network than in the random networks. This procedure also allowed us to generate confidence intervals and measure how far, in terms of social distance, the correlation in happiness between ego and alters reaches.

Measures of centrality in networks capture the extent to which a node connects, or lies between, other nodes, and hence its tendency to be positioned near the centre of his or her local network. Centrality is also taken as a marker of importance. The simplest measure of centrality is a count of the number of friends (this is called “degree” centrality). People with more friends will tend to be more central. But this measure does not account for differences in the centrality of one’s friends. Individuals who are connected to many well connected peers are more central than those who are connected to an identical number of poorly connected peers. In other words, those who befriend popular people will tend to be more central than those who befriend the unpopular. We used eigenvector centrality to capture this aspect. 47 This measure assumes that the centrality of a given person is an increasing function of the sum of all the centralities of all the people with whom he or she is connected (see appendix on bmj.com). Eigenvector centrality values are inherently relative: an individual connected to every other person in the network would have the maximum possible value, and a person not connected to anyone else would have a value of zero. In large networks, eigenvector centrality will not necessarily produce a measure of importance to the overall network but rather to a person’s local network. It is therefore possible that the most central individuals might not necessarily be located near the centre of a visualisation of the whole network—instead they will be located at the centre of their local networks.

Statistical analysis

The association between the happiness of individuals connected to each other, and the clustering within the network, could be attributed to at least three processes: induction , whereby happiness in one person causes the happiness of others; homophily, whereby happy individuals choose one another as friends and become connected (that is, the tendency of like to attract like) 48 ; or confounding, whereby connected individuals jointly experience contemporaneous exposures (such as an economic downturn or living in the same neighbourhood 13 ). To distinguish between these effects requires repeated measures of happiness, 35 49 longitudinal information about network ties, and information about the nature or direction of the ties (for example, who nominated whom as a friend).

We evaluated regression models of ego happiness as a function of ego’s age, sex, education, and happiness in the previous exam, and of the happiness of an alter in the current and previous exam. Inclusion of ego happiness in the previous exam helps to eliminate serial correlation in the errors and also substantially controls for ego’s genetic endowment and any intrinsic stable predilection to be happy. Alter’s happiness in the previous exam helps to control for homophily. 35 49 We evaluated the possibility of omitted variables or contemporaneous events or exposures in explaining the associations by examining how the type or direction of the social relationship between ego and alter affects the association between them. If unobserved factors drive the association between ego and alter happiness, then directionality of friendship should not be relevant. We also examined the possible role of exposure to neighbourhood factors by examining maps (see appendix on bmj.com).

The main coefficient of interest in these regression models is the one related to contemporaneous happiness in alters—that is, the extent to which an alter’s present happiness, net of the alter’s previous happiness, is associated with an ego’s present happiness, net of the ego’s previous happiness. 35 49 We used generalised estimating equation procedures to account for multiple observations of the same ego across waves and across ego-alter pairings. 50 We assumed an independent working correlation structure for the clusters. 51

The generalised estimating equation regression models provide parameter estimates in the form of β coefficients (as shown in the appendix on bmj.com), whereas the results reported in the text and in figures 4 ⇓ and 5 ⇓ are in the form of risk ratios, which are related to the exponentiated coefficients. We calculated mean effect sizes and 95% confidence intervals by simulating first difference in alter contemporaneous happiness (changing from 0 to 1) using 1000 randomly drawn sets of estimates from the coefficient covariance matrix and assuming all other variables are held at their means. 52

We explored the sensitivity of our results by conducting numerous other analyses, each of which had various strengths and limitations but none of which yielded substantially different results from those presented here (see appendix on bmj.com).

The networks in this study, like those in all network studies, are only partially observed. Therefore, there will be measurement error in individual network attributes. For example, we measured a person’s centrality based on the observed social network, but that same person might be highly central to an unobserved network of individuals who did not take part in the study. If there is a correlation between this measurement error and happiness, it could bias our results. We evaluated this potential source of bias by measuring the Pearson correlation between the number of social relations named outside the Framingham Heart Study and subject happiness. The association was both small and not significant (ρ=−0.01, P=0.33),suggesting that the unobserved parts of the network do not bias the inferences we make within the observed network.

Examination of the social network indicates that happy people tend to be connected to one another. Figure 1 shows the largest connected network component in 1996 and 2000 based on a restricted set of ties among siblings, spouses, and friends (coworker and neighbours are excluded to simplify the image). ⇓ To highlight the clustering of happiness, each node is coloured according to the person’s happiness on a spectrum from blue (unhappy) to yellow (happy).

Fig 1 Happiness clusters in the Framingham social network. Graphs show largest component of friends, spouses, and siblings at exam 6 (centred on year 1996, showing 1181 individuals) and exam 7 (year 2000, showing 1020 individuals). Each node represents one person (circles are female, squares are male). Lines between nodes indicate relationship (black for siblings, red for friends and spouses). Node colour denotes mean happiness of ego and all directly connected (distance 1) alters, with blue shades indicating least happy and yellow shades indicating most happy (shades of green are intermediate)

The clusters of happy and unhappy people seen in the network are significantly larger than expected by chance. We can calculate the relationship of ego and alter happiness at various degrees of separation by measuring the probability that an ego is happy when an alter is happy and comparing it to the same probability in a simulated network in which we retain the observed network ties and prevalence of happiness, but randomly shuffle the observed happiness between nodes. Figure 2 shows that the association between ego and alter happiness is significant up to three degrees of separation. ⇓ A person is 15.3% (95% confidence interval 12.2% to 18.8%) more likely to be happy if a directly connected alter (distance 1) is happy. The effect for distance two alters is 9.8% (7.0% to 12.9%) and for distance three alters is 5.6% (2.4% to 9.0%).

Fig 2 Social distance and happiness in the Framingham social network. Percentage increase in likelihood an ego is happy if friend or family member at certain social distance is happy (instead of unhappy). The relationship is strongest between individuals who are directly connected but remains significantly >0 at social distances up to three degrees of separation, meaning that a person’s happiness is associated with happiness of people up to three degrees removed from them in the network. Values derived by comparing conditional probability of being happy in observed network with an identical network (with topology and incidence of happiness preserved) in which same number of happy people are randomly distributed. Alter social distance refers to closest social distance between alter and ego (alter=distance 1, alter’s alter=distance 2, etc). Error bars show 95% confidence intervals

Figure 1 also suggests a relation between network centrality and happiness: people at the core of their local networks seem more likely to be happy, while those on the periphery seem more likely to be unhappy. ⇑ We tested this by computing eigenvector centrality measures for each subject. Generalised estimating equation regressions show that ego centrality is significantly associated with improved future happiness: a 2 SD increase in centrality (from low to medium or medium to high) increases the probability of being happy at the next examination by 14% (1% to 29%, P=0.03). Moreover, the relation between centrality and future happiness remained significant even when we controlled for age, education, and the total number of family and non-family alters. Thus, it is not only the number of direct ties (at one degree of separation) but also the number of indirect ties (at higher degrees of separation) that influence future happiness. The better connected are one’s friends and family, the more likely one will attain happiness in the future. Conversely, happiness itself does not increase a person’s centrality at subsequent time points (see appendix on bmj.com). That is, network centrality leads to happiness rather than the other way around.

Figure 3 ⇓ shows the positive association between the total number of happy alters and ego’s future probability of being happy in the raw data. To test the relation more rigorously, we specified generalised estimating equation regression models of ego happiness with the number of happy and unhappy alters in the previous exam as key predictors. The relation is highly significant, with each happy alter increasing the probability the ego is happy by about 9% (P=0.001), and each unhappy alter decreasing it by 7% (P=0.004). Hence, on average, having additional social contacts is helpful to ego’s happiness only if the extra social contacts are happy themselves. We also evaluated the simultaneous effect of total number of alters (whether happy or unhappy) and the fraction of alters who are happy. These models show that happy alters consistently influence ego happiness more than unhappy alters, and only the total number of happy alters remains significant in all specifications (see appendix on bmj.com). In other words, the number of happy friends seems to have a more reliable effect on ego happiness than the number of unhappy friends. Thus, the social network effect of happiness is multiplicative and asymmetric. Each additional happy alter increases the likelihood of happiness, but each additional unhappy alter has little or no effect. The emotional state of a person’s social relationships is more important to one’s own emotional state than the total number of those relationships.

Fig 3 Happy alters in Framingham social network. Mean probabilities observed in raw data with standard errors. Ego happiness in exams 6 and 7 (dichotomised between those who are maximally happy and everyone else) is positively associated with number of happy alters in previous exam. Generalised estimating equation regression models in appendix (see bmj.com) confirm relation is strongly significant, even with numerous controls

We examined the direct ties and individual level determinants of ego happiness in more detail. The principal determinant of a person’s happiness was their previous happiness; individuals who were happy at one wave were roughly three times more likely than unhappy people to be happy at the subsequent observation. Age, sex, and education had effects consistent with previous research, with women being less happy then men and educated people being slightly happier (see appendix on bmj.com).

Our main interest was the impact on an ego of the happiness of others. Figure 4 shows the results of generalised estimating equation models that distinguish effects for friends, spouses, siblings, coworkers, and neighbours. ⇓ We can use these results to estimate what would happen to the happiness of the ego if the alter were “switched” from being unhappy to being happy—that is, if the alters “become” happy. “Nearby” friends (who live within a mile (1.6 km)) and who become happy increase the probability ego is happy by 25% (1% to 57%). “Distant” friends (who live more than a mile away) have no significant effect on ego. Among friends, we can distinguish additional possibilities; as each person was asked to name a friend, and not all of these nominations were reciprocated, we have ego perceived friends (denoted “friends”), “alter perceived friends” (alter named ego as a friend, but not vice versa) and “mutual friends” (ego and alter nominated each other). Nearby mutual friends have a stronger effect than nearby ego perceived friends; when they become happy it increases the probability ego will be happy by 63% (12% to 148%). In contrast, the influence of nearby alter perceived friends is much weaker and not significant (12%, −13% to 47%). If the associations in the social network were merely caused by confounding, these effect sizes for different types of friendships should be more similar. That is, if some third factor were explaining both ego and alter happiness, it should not respect the directionality of the tie.

Fig 4 Alter type and happiness in the Framingham social network. Friends, spouses, siblings, and neighbours significantly influence happiness, but only if they live close to ego. Effects estimated with generalised estimating equation logit models of happiness on several different subsamples of the network (see table S6 in appendix on bmj.com)

We also found similar effects for other kinds of alters. Coresident spouses who become happy increase the probability their spouse is happy by 8% (0.2% to 16%), while non-coresident spouses have no significant effect. Nearby siblings who live within a mile (1.6 km) and become happy increase their sibling’s chance of happiness by 14% (1% to 28%), while distant siblings have no significant effect. Next door neighbours who become happy increase ego’s happiness by 34% (7% to 70%), while neighbours who live on the same block (within 25 metres) have no significant effect. All these relations indicate the importance of physical proximity, and the strong influence of neighbours suggests that the spread of happiness might depend more on frequent social contact than deep social connections. On the other hand, we found no effect of the happiness of coworkers on an ego, suggesting that the social context might moderate the flow of happiness from one person to another.

Past research on emotional contagion indicates that close physical proximity or coresidence is indeed necessary for emotional states to spread. 23 To further explore whether distance affects the spread of happiness, we varied the cut off for nearby friends. Figure 5 (top) shows that the probability that an ego becomes happy in response to an alter varies for friends who live at different physical distances. An ego is 42% (6% to 95%) more likely to be happy if a friend who lives less than half a mile (0.8 km) away becomes happy (net of controls, including ego’s baseline happiness). In contrast, the effect is only 22% (2% to 45%) for friends who live less than two miles (3.2 km) away, and it declines and ceases to be significant at greater distances.

Fig 5 Physical and temporal separation and spread of happiness in Framingham social network. Figure shows probability that ego is happy given that alter friend is happy, for different subsamples. Top: effect of gradually increasing maximum distance allowed between ego and alter households. Friends who live less than half mile (0.8 km) away have the strongest effect on ego happiness, and effect decreases with distance. Bottom: effect of gradually increasing maximum time allowed between ego and alter exams. Friends who report becoming happy within past half year exert strongest influence on ego happiness, and effect decreases as time between ego and alter exams increases. Effect sizes are based on generalised estimating equation models of happiness in tables S9 and S10 in appendix on bmj.com

Past research also suggests that changes in happiness are temporary and that there is “hedonic adaptation” to diverse stimuli 4 (in other words, people get used to good or bad fortune after some time). Figure 5 (bottom) shows such an effect for the interpersonal spread of happiness. An ego is 45% (4% to 122%) more likely to be happy if a friend who was examined in the past half year becomes happy. In contrast, the effect is only 35% (6% to 77%) for friends who were examined within the past year, and it declines and ceases to be significant at greater periods of time.

Sex also plays a part in the spread of happiness. Happiness spreads significantly more through same sex relationships than opposite sex relationships (P=0.02, see appendix on bmj.com), possibly helping to explain why friends and next door neighbours might exhibit stronger effects than spouses (who in our sample were all opposite sex). This result also accords with previous evidence on sex effects in the spread of obesity 32 35 and suggests that people might be more likely to take emotional cues from members of the same sex.

Finally, similarity in socioeconomic status probably cannot explain the clustering of happy people as next door neighbours have a much stronger influence than neighbours who live a few doors down in the same neighbourhood (and who consequently have similar housing, wealth, and environmental exposures). Moreover, the geographical distribution of happiness is not systematically related to local levels of either income or education (see maps in appendix on bmj.com). Both of these observations suggest that contextual effects are probably not driving our results.

While there are many determinants of happiness, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 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.

Our results are consistent with previous work on the evolutionary basis of human emotions and with work focusing on the fleeting direct spread of emotions. In addition to their internal and psychological relevance, 53 emotions have a specifically social role: when humans experience emotions, they tend to show them. Like laughter and smiling, 54 the emotion of happiness might serve the evolutionarily adaptive purpose of enhancing social bonds. Human laughter, for example, is believed to have evolved from the “play face” expression seen in other primates in relaxed social situations. 55 Such facial expressions and positive emotions enhance social relations by producing analogous pleasurable feelings in others, 17 by rewarding the efforts of others, and by encouraging ongoing social contact. Given the organisation of people (and early hominids) into social groups larger than pairs, 56 such spread in emotions probably served evolutionarily adaptive purposes. 8 There are thus good biological, psychological, and social reasons to suppose that social networks—both in terms of their large scale structure and in terms of the interpersonal ties of which they are composed—would be relevant to human happiness.

Our data do not allow us to identify the actual causal mechanisms of the spread of happiness, but various mechanisms are possible. Happy people might share their good fortune (for example, by being pragmatically helpful or financially generous to others), or change their behaviour towards others (for example, by being nicer or less hostile), or merely exude an emotion that is genuinely contagious (albeit over a longer time frame than previous psychological work has indicated). Psychoneuroimmunological mechanisms are also conceivable, whereby being surrounded by happy individuals has beneficial biological effects.

The spread of happiness seems to reach up to three degrees of separation, just like the spread of obesity 32 and smoking behaviour. 34 Hence, although the person to person effects of these outcomes tend to be quite strong, they decay well before reaching the whole network. In other words, the reach of a particular behaviour or mood cascade is not limitless. We conjecture that this phenomenon is generic. We might yet find that a “three degrees of influence rule” applies to depression, anxiety, loneliness, drinking, eating, exercise, and many other health related activities and emotional states, and that this rule restricts the effective spread of health phenomena to three degrees of separation away from the ego.

Our findings have relevance for public health. To the extent that clinical or policy manoeuvres increase the happiness of one person, they might have cascade effects on others, thereby enhancing the efficacy and cost effectiveness of the intervention. 33 For example, illness is a potential source of unhappiness for patients and also for those individuals surrounding the patient. Providing better care for those who are sick might not only improve their happiness but also the happiness of numerous others, thereby further vindicating the benefits of medical care or health promotion.

There is of course a tradition of community approaches to mental health, 57 58 but this longstanding concern is now being coupled with a burgeoning interest in health and social networks. 59 More generally, conceptions of health and concerns for the wellbeing of both individuals and populations are increasingly broadening to include diverse “quality of life” attributes, including happiness. Most important from our perspective is the recognition that people are embedded in social networks and that the health and wellbeing of one person affects the health and wellbeing of others. This fundamental fact of existence provides a conceptual justification for the specialty of public health. Human happiness is not merely the province of isolated individuals.

What is already known on this topic

Previous work on happiness and wellbeing has focused on socioeconomic and genetic factors

Research on emotional contagion has shown that one person’s mood might fleetingly determine the mood of others

Whether happiness spreads broadly and more permanently across social networks is unknown

What this study adds

Happiness is a network phenomenon, clustering in groups of people that extend up to three degrees of separation (for example, to one’s friends’ friends’ friends)

Happiness spreads across a diverse array of social ties

Network characteristics independently predict which individuals will be happy years into the future

Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2338

We thank Laurie Meneades, Rebecca Joyce, Molly Collins, Marian Bellwood, and Karen Mutalik for the expert assistance required to build the analytical data. We thank Chris Dawes, Dan Gilbert, Tom Keegan, Erez Lieberman, Andrew Oswald, Mark Pachucki, and Holly Shakya for helpful suggestions regarding the manuscript.

Contributors: Both authors participated in the conception and design of the study, analysis and interpretation of data, drafting and revising the article, and its final approval. Both authors are guarantors.

Funding: This was work was supported by NIH (R-01 AG24448, P-01 AG031093) and by the Pioneer Portfolio of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; NHLBI’s Framingham Heart Study is supported by contract number N01-HC-25195. Neither author has a dependent relationship with any of the funding agencies.

Competing interests: None declared.

Ethical approval: This work was approved by the Harvard institutional review board; the parent Framingham Heart Study has separate IRB approval. All participants gave informed consent.

Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Why Binary Stars Are So Abundant

By Carnegie Institution for Science September 24, 2014

New Models Show Most Stars Were Formed When Protostars Broke Up

These images show the distribution of density in the central plane of a three-dimensional model of a molecular cloud core from which stars are born. The model computes the cloud’s evolution over the free-fall timescale, which is how long it would take an object to collapse under its own gravity without any opposing forces interfering. The free-fall time is a common metric for measuring the timescale of astrophysical processes. In a) the free-fall time is 0.0, meaning this is the initial configuration of the cloud, and moving on the model shows the cloud core in various stages of collapse: b) a free-fall time of 1.40 or 66,080 years; c) a free-fall time of 1.51 or 71,272 years; and d) a free-fall time of 1.68 or 79,296 years. Collapse takes somewhat longer than a free-fall time in this model because of the presence of magnetic fields, which slow the collapse process, but are not strong enough to prevent the cloud from fragmenting into a multiple protostar system (d). For context, the region shown in a) and b) is about 0.21 light years (or 2.0 x 1017 centimeters) across, while the region shown in c) and d) is about 0.02 light years (or 2.0 x 1016 cm) across. Image is provided courtesy of Alan Boss

New research from the Carnegie Institution for Science helps to explain why binary stars are so abundant.

Washington, D.C. — New modeling studies from Carnegie’s Alan Boss demonstrate that most of the stars we see were formed when unstable clusters of newly formed protostars broke up. These protostars are born out of rotating clouds of dust and gas, which act as nurseries for star formation. Rare clusters of multiple protostars remain stable and mature into multi-star systems. The unstable ones will eject stars until they achieve stability and end up as single or binary stars. The work is published in The Astrophysical Journal .

About two-thirds of all stars within 81 light years (25 parsecs) of Earth are binary or part of multi-star systems. Younger star and protostar populations have a higher frequency of multi-star systems than older ones, an observation that ties in with Boss’ findings that many single-star systems start out as binary or multi-star systems from which stars are ejected to achieve stability.

Protostar clusters are formed when the core of a molecular cloud collapses due to its own gravity and breaks up into pieces, a process called fragmentation. The physical forces involved in the collapse are subjects of great interest to scientists, because they can teach us about the life cycles of stars and how our own Sun may have been born. One force that affects collapse is the magnetic field that threads the clouds, potentially stifling the fragmentation process.

Boss’ work shows that when a cloud collapses, the fragmentation process depends on the initial strength of the magnetic field, which acts against the gravity that causes the collapse. Above a certain magnetic field strength, single protostars are formed, while below it, the cloud fragments into multiple protostars. This second scenario is evidently commonplace, given the large number of binary and multi-star systems, although single stars can form by this mechanism as well through ejection from a cluster.

“When we look up at the night sky,” Boss said, “the human eye is unable to see that binary stars are the rule, rather than the exception. These new calculations help to explain why binaries are so abundant.”

Publication : Alan P. Boss and Sandra A. Keiser, “Collapse and Fragmentation of Magnetic Molecular Cloud Cores with the Enzo AMR MHD Code. II. Prolate and Oblate Cores,” 2014, ApJ, 794, 44; doi:10.1088/0004-637X/794/1/44

PDF Copy of the Study : Collapse and Fragmentation of Magnetic Molecular Cloud Cores with the Enzo AMR MHD Code. II. Prolate and Oblate Cores

Image: Alan Boss

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Research on correlation of Money & Happiness

In contrast to decades of research reporting surprisingly weak relationships between consumption and happiness, recent findings suggest that money can indeed increase happiness if it is spent the “right way” (e.g., on experiences or on other people).

Drawing on the concept of psychological fit, we extend this research by arguing that individual differences play a central role in determining the “right” type of spending to increase well-being. In a field study using more than 76,000 bank-transaction records, we found that individuals spend more on products that match their personality, and that people whose purchases better match their personality report higher levels of life satisfaction.

According to Dunn and Norton, recent research on happiness suggests that the most satisfying way of using money is to invest in others. This can take a seemingly limitless variety of forms, from donating to a charity that helps strangers in a faraway country to buying lunch for a friend.

Image result for research on money and happiness harvard study

Witness Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the wealthiest people in the world. On a March day in 2010, they sat in a diner in Carter Lake, Iowa, and hatched a scheme. They would ask America‘s billionaires to pledge the majority of their wealth to charity. Buffet decided to donate 99 percent of his, saying, “I couldn‘t be happier with that decision.”

Dunn and Norton further discuss how businesses such as PepsiCo and Google and nonprofits such as DonorsChoose.org are harnessing these benefits by encouraging donors, customers, and employees to invest in others. When Pepsi punted advertising at the 2010 Superbowl and diverted funds to supporting grants that would allow people to “refresh” their communities, for example, more public votes were cast for projects than had been cast in the 2008 election. Pepsi got buzz, and the company‘s in-house competition also offering a seed grant boosted employee morale.

Authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton draw on years of quantitative and qualitative research to explain how money can buy happiness, but only if we spend it in certain ways.

The key lies in adhering to five key principles: Buy Experiences (research shows that material purchases are less satisfying than vacations or concerts); Make it a Treat (limiting access to our favorite things will make us keep appreciating them); Buy Time (focusing on time over money yields wiser purchases); Pay Now, Consume Later (delayed consumption leads to increased enjoyment); and Invest in Others (spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves).

Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge &  Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton

Stress, Lifestyle, and Health

The pursuit of happiness, learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define and discuss happiness, including its determinants
  • Describe the field of positive psychology and identify the kinds of problems it addresses
  • Explain the meaning of positive affect and discuss its importance in health outcomes
  • Describe the concept of flow and its relationship to happiness and fulfillment

Although the study of stress and how it affects us physically and psychologically is fascinating, it is—admittedly—somewhat of a grim topic. Psychology is also interested in the study of a more upbeat and encouraging approach to human affairs—the quest for happiness.

America’s founders declared that its citizens have an unalienable right to pursue happiness. But what is happiness? When asked to define the term, people emphasize different aspects of this elusive state. Indeed, happiness is somewhat ambiguous and can be defined from different perspectives (Martin, 2012). Some people, especially those who are highly committed to their religious faith, view happiness in ways that emphasize virtuosity, reverence, and enlightened spirituality. Others see happiness as primarily contentment—the inner peace and joy that come from deep satisfaction with one’s surroundings, relationships with others, accomplishments, and oneself. Still others view happiness mainly as pleasurable engagement with their personal environment—having a career and hobbies that are engaging, meaningful, rewarding, and exciting. These differences, of course, are merely differences in emphasis. Most people would probably agree that each of these views, in some respects, captures the essence of happiness.

Elements of Happiness

Some psychologists have suggested that happiness consists of three distinct elements: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life, as shown in [link] (Seligman, 2002; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). The pleasant life is realized through the attainment of day-to-day pleasures that add fun, joy, and excitement to our lives. For example, evening walks along the beach and a fulfilling sex life can enhance our daily pleasure and contribute to the pleasant life. The good life is achieved through identifying our unique skills and abilities and engaging these talents to enrich our lives; those who achieve the good life often find themselves absorbed in their work or their recreational pursuits. The meaningful life involves a deep sense of fulfillment that comes from using our talents in the service of the greater good: in ways that benefit the lives of others or that make the world a better place. In general, the happiest people tend to be those who pursue the full life—they orient their pursuits toward all three elements (Seligman et al., 2005).

A Venn diagram features three circles: one labeled “Good life: using skills for enrichment,” one labeled “Pleasant life: enjoying daily pleasures,” and another labeled: Meaningful life: contributing to the greater good.” All three circles overlap at a section labeled “Happiness.”

Happiness is an enduring state of well-being involving satisfaction in the pleasant, good, and meaningful aspects of life.

For practical purposes, a precise definition of happiness might incorporate each of these elements: an enduring state of mind consisting of joy, contentment, and other positive emotions, plus the sense that one’s life has meaning and value (Lyubomirsky, 2001). The definition implies that happiness is a long-term state—what is often characterized as subjective well-being—rather than merely a transient positive mood we all experience from time to time. It is this enduring happiness that has captured the interests of psychologists and other social scientists.

The study of happiness has grown dramatically in the last three decades (Diener, 2013). One of the most basic questions that happiness investigators routinely examine is this: How happy are people in general? The average person in the world tends to be relatively happy and tends to indicate experiencing more positive feelings than negative feelings (Diener, Ng, Harter, & Arora, 2010). When asked to evaluate their current lives on a scale ranging from 0 to 10 (with 0 representing “worst possible life” and 10 representing “best possible life”), people in more than 150 countries surveyed from 2010–2012 reported an average score of 5.2. People who live in North America, Australia, and New Zealand reported the highest average score at 7.1, whereas those living Sub-Saharan Africa reported the lowest average score at 4.6 (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2013). Worldwide, the five happiest countries are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden; the United States is ranked 17th happiest ( [link] ) (Helliwell et al., 2013).

Photograph A shows a row of buildings by the water in Denmark. Photograph B shows an aerial view of a city in the United States including several skyscrapers.

(a) Surveys of residents in over 150 countries indicate that Denmark has the happiest citizens in the world. (b) Americans ranked the United States as the 17th happiest country in which to live. (credit a: modification of work by “JamesZ_Flickr”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Ryan Swindell)

Several years ago, a Gallup survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults found that 52% reported that they were “very happy.” In addition, more than 8 in 10 indicated that they were “very satisfied” with their lives (Carroll, 2007). However, a recent poll of 2,345 U.S. adults surprisingly revealed that only one-third reported they are “very happy.” The poll also revealed that the happiness levels of certain groups, including minorities, recent college graduates, and the disabled, have trended downward in recent years (Gregoire, 2013). Although it is difficult to explain this apparent decline in happiness, it may be connected to the challenging economic conditions the United States has endured over the last several years. Of course, this presumption would imply that happiness is closely tied to one’s finances. But, is it? This question brings us to the next important issue: What factors influence happiness?

Factors Connected to Happiness

What really makes people happy? What factors contribute to sustained joy and contentment? Is it money, attractiveness, material possessions, a rewarding occupation, a satisfying relationship? Extensive research over the years has examined this question. One finding is that age is related to happiness: Life satisfaction usually increases the older people get, but there do not appear to be gender differences in happiness (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). Although it is important to point out that much of this work has been correlational, many of the key findings (some of which may surprise you) are summarized below.

Family and other social relationships appear to be key factors correlated with happiness. Studies show that married people report being happier than those who are single, divorced, or widowed (Diener et al., 1999). Happy individuals also report that their marriages are fulfilling (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). In fact, some have suggested that satisfaction with marriage and family life is the strongest predictor of happiness (Myers, 2000). Happy people tend to have more friends, more high-quality social relationships, and stronger social support networks than less happy people (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Happy people also have a high frequency of contact with friends (Pinquart & Sörensen, 2000).

Can money buy happiness? In general, extensive research suggests that the answer is yes, but with several caveats. While a nation’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is associated with happiness levels (Helliwell et al., 2013), changes in GDP (which is a less certain index of household income) bear little relationship to changes in happiness (Diener, Tay, & Oishi, 2013). On the whole, residents of affluent countries tend to be happier than residents of poor countries; within countries, wealthy individuals are happier than poor individuals, but the association is much weaker (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002). To the extent that it leads to increases in purchasing power, increases in income are associated with increases in happiness (Diener, Oishi, & Ryan, 2013). However, income within societies appears to correlate with happiness only up to a point. In a study of over 450,000 U.S. residents surveyed by the Gallup Organization, Kahneman and Deaton (2010) found that well-being rises with annual income, but only up to $75,000. The average increase in reported well-being for people with incomes greater than $75,000 was null. As implausible as these findings might seem—after all, higher incomes would enable people to indulge in Hawaiian vacations, prime seats as sporting events, expensive automobiles, and expansive new homes—higher incomes may impair people’s ability to savor and enjoy the small pleasures of life (Kahneman, 2011). Indeed, researchers in one study found that participants exposed to a subliminal reminder of wealth spent less time savoring a chocolate candy bar and exhibited less enjoyment of this experience than did participants who were not reminded of wealth (Quoidbach, Dunn, Petrides, & Mikolajczak, 2010).

What about education and employment? Happy people, compared to those who are less happy, are more likely to graduate from college and secure more meaningful and engaging jobs. Once they obtain a job, they are also more likely to succeed (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). While education shows a positive (but weak) correlation with happiness, intelligence is not appreciably related to happiness (Diener et al., 1999).

Does religiosity correlate with happiness? In general, the answer is yes (Hackney & Sanders, 2003). However, the relationship between religiosity and happiness depends on societal circumstances. Nations and states with more difficult living conditions (e.g., widespread hunger and low life expectancy) tend to be more highly religious than societies with more favorable living conditions. Among those who live in nations with difficult living conditions, religiosity is associated with greater well-being; in nations with more favorable living conditions, religious and nonreligious individuals report similar levels of well-being (Diener, Tay, & Myers, 2011).

Clearly the living conditions of one’s nation can influence factors related to happiness. What about the influence of one’s culture? To the extent that people possess characteristics that are highly valued by their culture, they tend to be happier (Diener, 2012). For example, self-esteem is a stronger predictor of life satisfaction in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures (Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995), and extraverted people tend to be happier in extraverted cultures than in introverted cultures (Fulmer et al., 2010).

So we’ve identified many factors that exhibit some correlation to happiness. What factors don’t show a correlation? Researchers have studied both parenthood and physical attractiveness as potential contributors to happiness, but no link has been identified. Although people tend to believe that parenthood is central to a meaningful and fulfilling life, aggregate findings from a range of countries indicate that people who do not have children are generally happier than those who do (Hansen, 2012). And although one’s perceived level of attractiveness seems to predict happiness, a person’s objective physical attractiveness is only weakly correlated with her happiness (Diener, Wolsic, & Fujita, 1995).

Life Events and Happiness

An important point should be considered regarding happiness. People are often poor at affective forecasting: predicting the intensity and duration of their future emotions (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003). In one study, nearly all newlywed spouses predicted their marital satisfaction would remain stable or improve over the following four years; despite this high level of initial optimism, their marital satisfaction actually declined during this period (Lavner, Karner, & Bradbury, 2013). In addition, we are often incorrect when estimating how our long-term happiness would change for the better or worse in response to certain life events. For example, it is easy for many of us to imagine how euphoric we would feel if we won the lottery, were asked on a date by an attractive celebrity, or were offered our dream job. It is also easy to understand how long-suffering fans of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which has not won a World Series championship since 1908, think they would feel permanently elated if their team would finally win another World Series. Likewise, it easy to predict that we would feel permanently miserable if we suffered a crippling accident or if a romantic relationship ended.

However, something similar to sensory adaptation often occurs when people experience emotional reactions to life events. In much the same way our senses adapt to changes in stimulation (e.g., our eyes adapting to bright light after walking out of the darkness of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sun), we eventually adapt to changing emotional circumstances in our lives (Brickman & Campbell, 1971; Helson, 1964). When an event that provokes positive or negative emotions occurs, at first we tend to experience its emotional impact at full intensity. We feel a burst of pleasure following such things as a marriage proposal, birth of a child, acceptance to law school, an inheritance, and the like; as you might imagine, lottery winners experience a surge of happiness after hitting the jackpot (Lutter, 2007). Likewise, we experience a surge of misery following widowhood, a divorce, or a layoff from work. In the long run, however, we eventually adjust to the emotional new normal; the emotional impact of the event tends to erode, and we eventually revert to our original baseline happiness levels. Thus, what was at first a thrilling lottery windfall or World Series championship eventually loses its luster and becomes the status quo ( [link] ). Indeed, dramatic life events have much less long-lasting impact on happiness than might be expected (Brickman, Coats, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978).

Photograph A shows a pitcher for the Cubs on the mound. Photograph B shows a lottery ticket.

(a) Long-suffering Chicago Cub fans would no doubt feel elated if their team won a World Series championship, a feat that has not been accomplished by that franchise in over a century. (b) In ways that are similar, those who play the lottery rightfully think that choosing the correct numbers and winning millions would lead to a surge in happiness. However, the initial burst of elation following such elusive events would most likely erode with time. (credit a: modification of work by Phil Roeder; credit b: modification of work by Robert S. Donovan)

Recently, some have raised questions concerning the extent to which important life events can permanently alter people’s happiness set points (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006). Evidence from a number of investigations suggests that, in some circumstances, happiness levels do not revert to their original positions. For example, although people generally tend to adapt to marriage so that it no longer makes them happier or unhappier than before, they often do not fully adapt to unemployment or severe disabilities (Diener, 2012). [link] , which is based on longitudinal data from a sample of over 3,000 German respondents, shows life satisfaction scores several years before, during, and after various life events, and it illustrates how people adapt (or fail to adapt) to these events. German respondents did not get lasting emotional boosts from marriage; instead, they reported brief increases in happiness, followed by quick adaptation. In contrast, widows and those who had been laid off experienced sizeable decreases in happiness that appeared to result in long-term changes in life satisfaction (Diener et al., 2006). Further, longitudinal data from the same sample showed that happiness levels changed significantly over time for nearly a quarter of respondents, with 9% showing major changes (Fujita & Diener, 2005). Thus, long-term happiness levels can and do change for some people.

A chart compares life satisfaction scores in the years before and after significant life events. Life satisfaction is steady in the five years before and after marriage. There is a gradual incline that peaks in the year of marriage and declines slightly in the years following. With respect to unemployment, life satisfaction five years before is roughly the same as it is with marriage at that time, but begins to decline sharply around 2 years before unemployment. One year after unemployment, life satisfaction has risen slightly, but then becomes steady at a much lower level than at five years before. With respect to the death of a spouse, life satisfaction five years before is about the same as marriage at that time, but steadily declines until the death, when it starts to gradually rise again. After five years, the person who has suffered the death of a spouse has roughly the same life satisfaction as the person who was unemployed.

This graphs shows life satisfaction scores several years before and after three significant life events (0 represents the year the event happened) (Diener et al., 2006).

Increasing Happiness

Some recent findings about happiness provide an optimistic picture, suggesting that real changes in happiness are possible. For example, thoughtfully developed well-being interventions designed to augment people’s baseline levels of happiness may increase happiness in ways that are permanent and long-lasting, not just temporary. These changes in happiness may be targeted at individual, organizational, and societal levels (Diener et al., 2006). Researchers in one study found that a series of happiness interventions involving such exercises as writing down three good things that occurred each day led to increases in happiness that lasted over six months (Seligman et al., 2005).

Measuring happiness and well-being at the societal level over time may assist policy makers in determining if people are generally happy or miserable, as well as when and why they might feel the way they do. Studies show that average national happiness scores (over time and across countries) relate strongly to six key variables: per capita gross domestic product (GDP, which reflects a nation’s economic standard of living), social support, freedom to make important life choices, healthy life expectancy, freedom from perceived corruption in government and business, and generosity (Helliwell et al., 2013). Investigating why people are happy or unhappy might help policymakers develop programs that increase happiness and well-being within a society (Diener et al., 2006). Resolutions about contemporary political and social issues that are frequent topics of debate—such as poverty, taxation, affordable health care and housing, clean air and water, and income inequality—might be best considered with people’s happiness in mind.


In 1998, Seligman (the same person who conducted the learned helplessness experiments mentioned earlier), who was then president of the American Psychological Association, urged psychologists to focus more on understanding how to build human strength and psychological well-being. In deliberately setting out to create a new direction and new orientation for psychology, Seligman helped establish a growing movement and field of research called positive psychology (Compton, 2005). In a very general sense, positive psychology can be thought of as the science of happiness; it is an area of study that seeks to identify and promote those qualities that lead to greater fulfillment in our lives. This field looks at people’s strengths and what helps individuals to lead happy, contented lives, and it moves away from focusing on people’s pathology, faults, and problems. According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), positive psychology,

at the subjective level is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and… happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. (p. 5)

Some of the topics studied by positive psychologists include altruism and empathy, creativity, forgiveness and compassion, the importance of positive emotions, enhancement of immune system functioning, savoring the fleeting moments of life, and strengthening virtues as a way to increase authentic happiness (Compton, 2005). Recent efforts in the field of positive psychology have focused on extending its principles toward peace and well-being at the level of the global community. In a war-torn world in which conflict, hatred, and distrust are common, such an extended “positive peace psychology” could have important implications for understanding how to overcome oppression and work toward global peace (Cohrs, Christie, White, & Das, 2013).

Dig Deeper: The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds

On the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center conducts rigorous scientific research on healthy aspects of the mind, such as kindness, forgiveness, compassion, and mindfulness. Established in 2008 and led by renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the Center examines a wide range of ideas, including such things as a kindness curriculum in schools, neural correlates of prosocial behavior, psychological effects of Tai Chi training, digital games to foster prosocial behavior in children, and the effectiveness of yoga and breathing exercises in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to its website, the Center was founded after Dr. Davidson was challenged by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, “to apply the rigors of science to study positive qualities of mind” (Center for Investigating Health Minds, 2013). The Center continues to conduct scientific research with the aim of developing mental health training approaches that help people to live happier, healthier lives).

Positive Affect and Optimism

Taking a cue from positive psychology, extensive research over the last 10-15 years has examined the importance of positive psychological attributes in physical well-being. Qualities that help promote psychological well-being (e.g., having meaning and purpose in life, a sense of autonomy, positive emotions, and satisfaction with life) are linked with a range of favorable health outcomes (especially improved cardiovascular health) mainly through their relationships with biological functions and health behaviors (such as diet, physical activity, and sleep quality) (Boehm & Kubzansky, 2012). The quality that has received attention is positive affect , which refers to pleasurable engagement with the environment, such as happiness, joy, enthusiasm, alertness, and excitement (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988). The characteristics of positive affect, as with negative affect (discussed earlier), can be brief, long-lasting, or trait-like (Pressman & Cohen, 2005). Independent of age, gender, and income, positive affect is associated with greater social connectedness, emotional and practical support, adaptive coping efforts, and lower depression; it is also associated with longevity and favorable physiological functioning (Steptoe, O’Donnell, Marmot, & Wardle, 2008).

Positive affect also serves as a protective factor against heart disease. In a 10-year study of Nova Scotians, the rate of heart disease was 22% lower for each one-point increase on the measure of positive affect, from 1 (no positive affect expressed) to 5 (extreme positive affect) (Davidson, Mostofsky, & Whang, 2010). In terms of our health, the expression, “don’t worry, be happy” is helpful advice indeed. There has also been much work suggesting that optimism —the general tendency to look on the bright side of things—is also a significant predictor of positive health outcomes.

Although positive affect and optimism are related in some ways, they are not the same (Pressman & Cohen, 2005). Whereas positive affect is mostly concerned with positive feeling states, optimism has been regarded as a generalized tendency to expect that good things will happen (Chang, 2001). It has also been conceptualized as a tendency to view life’s stressors and difficulties as temporary and external to oneself (Peterson & Steen, 2002). Numerous studies over the years have consistently shown that optimism is linked to longevity, healthier behaviors, fewer postsurgical complications, better immune functioning among men with prostate cancer, and better treatment adherence (Rasmussen & Wallio, 2008). Further, optimistic people report fewer physical symptoms, less pain, better physical functioning, and are less likely to be rehospitalized following heart surgery (Rasmussen, Scheier, & Greenhouse, 2009).

Another factor that seems to be important in fostering a deep sense of well-being is the ability to derive flow from the things we do in life. Flow is described as a particular experience that is so engaging and engrossing that it becomes worth doing for its own sake (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). It is usually related to creative endeavors and leisure activities, but it can also be experienced by workers who like their jobs or students who love studying (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Many of us instantly recognize the notion of flow. In fact, the term derived from respondents’ spontaneous use of the term when asked to describe how it felt when what they were doing was going well. When people experience flow, they become involved in an activity to the point where they feel they lose themselves in the activity. They effortlessly maintain their concentration and focus, they feel as though they have complete control of their actions, and time seems to pass more quickly than usual (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Flow is considered a pleasurable experience, and it typically occurs when people are engaged in challenging activities that require skills and knowledge they know they possess. For example, people would be more likely report flow experiences in relation to their work or hobbies than in relation to eating. When asked the question, “Do you ever get involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter, and you lose track of time?” about 20% of Americans and Europeans report having these flow-like experiences regularly (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).

Although wealth and material possessions are nice to have, the notion of flow suggests that neither are prerequisites for a happy and fulfilling life. Finding an activity that you are truly enthusiastic about, something so absorbing that doing it is reward itself (whether it be playing tennis, studying Arabic, writing children’s novels, or cooking lavish meals) is perhaps the real key. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1999), creating conditions that make flow experiences possible should be a top social and political priority. How might this goal be achieved? How might flow be promoted in school systems? In the workplace? What potential benefits might be accrued from such efforts?

In an ideal world, scientific research endeavors should inform us on how to bring about a better world for all people. The field of positive psychology promises to be instrumental in helping us understand what truly builds hope, optimism, happiness, healthy relationships, flow, and genuine personal fulfillment.

Happiness is conceptualized as an enduring state of mind that consists of the capacity to experience pleasure in daily life, as well as the ability to engage one’s skills and talents to enrich one’s life and the lives of others. Although people around the world generally report that they are happy, there are differences in average happiness levels across nations. Although people have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which their happiness set points would change for the better or for the worse following certain life events, researchers have identified a number of factors that are consistently related to happiness. In recent years, positive psychology has emerged as an area of study seeking to identify and promote qualities that lead to greater happiness and fulfillment in our lives. These components include positive affect, optimism, and flow.

Self Check Questions

Critical thinking questions.

1. In considering the three dimensions of happiness discussed in this section (the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life), what are some steps you could take to improve your personal level of happiness?

2. The day before the drawing of a $300 million Powerball lottery, you notice that a line of people waiting to buy their Powerball tickets is stretched outside the door of a nearby convenience store. Based on what you’ve learned, provide some perspective on why these people are doing this, and what would likely happen if one of these individuals happened to pick the right numbers.

Personal Application Question

3. Think of an activity you participate in that you find engaging and absorbing. For example, this might be something like playing video games, reading, or a hobby. What are your experiences typically like while engaging in this activity? Do your experiences conform to the notion of flow? If so, how? Do you think these experiences have enriched your life? Why or why not?

1. Answers will vary, but may include mentioning things that boost positive emotions (the pleasant life), developing and using skills and talents (the good life), and using one’s talents to help others (the meaningful life).

2. These individuals’ affective forecasting is such that they believe their lives would be immeasurably happier if they won the lottery. Although winning would certainly lead to a surge of euphoria in the short term, long term they would likely adjust, and their happiness levels would likely return to normal. This fact is lost on most people, especially when considering the intensity and duration of their emotions following a major life event.

Find Your Path

Book your stay, finding long-term happiness.

How can you find long-term happiness?

It’s a simple question, one that has been explored and expounded on for thousands of years. And yet the answer remains elusive to many, perhaps because true, lasting happiness involves a combination of factors—many of which are unique to you.

Happiness has been linked to longer lifespans, increased immunity and lowered susceptibility to illnesses like heart disease and depression, so the value of achieving it clearly goes far beyond your emotional health. And, just like so many other goals with worthy payoffs, long-term happiness takes time and a conscious effort to develop. While you may find momentary bliss in a shopping spree or a pay raise, research shows that only 10 percent of happiness comes from our circumstances. True happiness comes gradually, despite setbacks and detours, through the sum of your life choices.

Though there’s no exact formula for making decisions that lead to long-term happiness, research suggests that happy people tend to share some common principles. Consider these suggestions, based on those truths, when working to cultivate your own contentment. Give yourself the time and grace needed to take to these new strategies and start to see a change in how happy you feel.

Engage in Activities You Love

We are often told to “do what you love.” And while succeeding in a career that brings you great contentment is a reality for some, finding a job that provides more happiness than headache isn’t easy. Yet research has shown that being engaged in something you’re passionate about is one of the keys to long-term happiness. So ask yourself what excites you, and then find ways to incorporate that activity into your daily life. You may not be able to change your job (at least not immediately), but having an absorbing, stimulating pastime—cooking, playing an instrument, learning a new language, tending your garden—can help you feel good not just about yourself, but about life in general.

Foster Friendships

Having meaningful contact and connections with others increases your sense of support and can improve your coping skills, leading to lower stress levels, particularly during difficult times. Good friends also tend to discourage unhealthy behaviors, like smoking or drinking too much, and can be great motivators when it comes to creating healthy ones, like starting a walking routine; better physical health can contribute significantly to your overall outlook on things. Commit to putting the people you love first as often as possible. This means scheduling time for coffee breaks, family dinners or even just a chat on the phone.

Be Flexible

Even the happiest among us face disappointment and challenge in life, and adjusting to a different outcome than one you were expecting isn’t always easy. It requires you to admit what you can’t control and to come to terms with what you’ve been dealt. But adapting rather than shutting down or giving into anger or frustration can help you be more resilient. With time, you may start to see and deal with obstacles in a whole new way. The next time you are faced with a letdown, try looking at it from three different perspectives: What is bad about the situation (I didn’t get the promotion I wanted); what’s good about it (I now know what areas I can improve on so that I’m more likely to get it next time); and finally, what is interesting about it (I gained helpful insight into how my boss makes his decisions.) This multi-angle view can encourage flexible thinking.

Practice Forgiveness

It’s difficult to be happy if you’re holding on to anger or remorse for things that were said or done. But practicing forgiveness—both for yourself and others—is the first step in freeing yourself of this burden and experiencing happiness in the present. While a good amount of time may be necessary to come to a place where you can forgive a major issue, Douglas A. Smith, speaker and happiness instructor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, offers this exercise to practice forgiveness of smaller offenses: Aim to discuss the issue with the person involved and express your feelings within a 48-hour window. After you’ve done that, let it go. This can help you to address your hurt while loosening your grip on negative emotions before they have time to take root.

… And Gratitude

It can be easy to go through life without expressing gratitude, particularly for those who tend to focus on the negative. But research has shown that counting your blessings on a regular basis can lead to lasting feelings of happiness. In one study, people who expressed daily gratitude, by writing down three things they were thankful for, reported that they were significantly happier after only three weeks. You can be thankful for anything—from a loving sibling to a delicious lunch and everything in between. The key is taking the time to reflect.

Invest in Experiences

Money may not buy you happiness, but there is a growing body of research to suggest that the benefits that come with some types of splurges may be worth opening up your wallet for. Concerts, trips, and other activities can leave you feeling happier, longer, than material objects like clothes or gadgets. That’s because things that you do, see, and experience lead to lasting memories, giving you something positive to draw on for years to come—long after that new shirt has seen its last wear. (Bonus: They’re perpetual additions to your gratitude list!) Book that trip you’ve been talking about, enroll in those art classes, or score that front-row ticket to your favorite band’s next show.

Keep Your Hopes Up

In a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic that spanned more than 40 years, researchers found that those who identified themselves as being more pessimistic were 30 percent more likely to die young than those who thought of themselves as optimistic. Optimists were also generally healthier, less likely to suffer from chronic pain, had more energy and—you guessed it—greater feelings of happiness. Changing a glass-half-empty outlook takes time, and realistic hopefulness, not total optimism, should be the goal, but you can start by challenging your thinking. When you find yourself deep in a negative thought pattern, take a step back. Ask yourself if your situation is truly as bad as you think it is. Then try to approach it from a different, more positive perspective. Even a subtle shift, from “things couldn’t possibly get worse,” to “things aren’t great right now, but at least I have my friends and family” is a step in the right direction.

Related Pathway : Reconnect with Joy

Greater Good Science Center • Magazine • In Action • In Education

Mind & Body Articles & More

Four ways happiness can hurt you, can feeling good ever be bad new research says yes—and points the way to a healthier, more balanced life..

In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of scientific research revealing precisely how positive feelings like happiness are good for us. We know that they motivate us to pursue important goals and overcome obstacles, protect us from some effects of stress, connect us closely with other people, and even stave off physical and mental ailments.

This has made happiness pretty trendy. The science of happiness made the covers of Time , Oprah , and even The Economist , and it has spawned a small industry of motivational speakers, psychotherapists, and research enterprises. This website, Greater Good , features roughly 400 articles about happiness , and its parenting blog is specifically about raising happy children .

Clearly, happiness is popular. But is happiness always good? Can feeling too good ever be bad? Researchers are just starting to seriously explore these questions, with good reason: By recognizing the potential pitfalls of happiness, we enable ourselves to understand it more deeply and we learn to better promote healthier and more balanced lives.

research on happiness suggests that

Along with my colleagues Iris Mauss and Maya Tamir, I have reviewed the emerging scientific research on the dark side of happiness, and we have conducted our own research on the topic. These studies have revealed four ways that happiness might be bad for us.

1. Too much happiness can make you less creative—and less safe.

Happiness, it turns out, has a cost when experienced too intensely.

For instance, we often are told that happiness can open up our minds to foster more creative thinking and help us tackle problems or puzzles. This is the case when we experience moderate levels of happiness. But according to Mark Alan Davis’s 2008 meta-analysis of the relationship between mood and creativity, when people experience intense and perhaps overwhelming amounts of happiness, they no longer experience the same creativity boost. And in extreme cases like mania, people lose the ability to tap into and channel their inner creative resources. What’s more, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that too much positive emotion—and too little negative emotion—makes people inflexible in the face of new challenges.

Not only does excessive happiness sometimes wipe out its benefits for us—it may actually lead to psychological harm. Why? The answer may lie in the purpose and function of happiness. When we experience happiness, our attention turns toward exciting and positive things in our lives to help sustain the good feeling. When feeling happy, we also tend to feel less inhibited and more likely to explore new possibilities and take risks.

Take this function of happiness to the extreme. Imagine someone who has an overpowering drive to attend only to the positive things around them and take risks of enormous proportions. They might tend to overlook or neglect warning signs in their environment, or take bold leaps and risky steps even when outward signs suggest gains are unlikely.

People in this heightened ‘happiness overdrive’ mode engage in riskier behaviors and tend to disregard threats, including excessive alcohol consumption, binge eating, sexual promiscuity, and drug use. In a 1993 study, psychologist Howard S. Friedman and colleagues found that school-aged children rated as “highly cheerful” by parents and teachers had a greater risk of mortality when followed into adulthood, perhaps because they engaged in more risk-taking behaviors.

All these results point to one conclusion: Happiness may be best when experienced in moderation—not too little, but also not too much.

2. Happiness is not suited to every situation.

Our emotions help us adapt to new circumstances, challenges, and opportunities. Anger mobilizes us to overcome obstacles; fear alerts us to threats and engages our fight-or-flight preparation system; sadness signals loss. These emotions enable us to meet particular needs in specific contexts.

The same goes for happiness—it helps us to pursue and attain important goals, and encourages us to cooperate with others. But just as we would not want to feel angry or sad in every context, we should not want to experience happiness in every context.

As psychologist Charles Carver has argued, positive emotions like happiness signal to us that our goals are being fulfilled, which enables us to slow down, step back, and mentally coast. That’s why happiness can actually hurt us in competition. Illuminating studies done by Maya Tamir found that people in a happy mood performed worse than people in an angry mood when playing a competitive computer game.

In my own laboratory, we’ve found that individuals who experience happiness in inappropriate contexts—such as watching a film of a young child crying or that scene from Trainspotting when Ewan McGregor digs through a disgusting feces-covered toilet—were at greater risk for developing the emotional disorder of mania.

Happiness has a time and a place—it’s not suited for every situation!

3. Not all types of happiness are good for you.

“Happiness” is a single term, but it refers to a rainbow of different flavors of emotion: Some make us more energetic, some slow us down; some make us feel closer to other people, some make us more generous.

But do all types of happiness promote these benefits? It seems not. In fact, a more nuanced analysis of different types of happiness suggests that some forms may actually be a source of dysfunction.

One example is pride, a pleasant feeling associated with achievement and elevated social rank or status. As such, it is often seen as a type of positive emotion that makes us focus more on ourselves. Pride can be good in certain contexts and forms, such as winning a difficult prize or receiving a job promotion.

However, my research with Sheri Johnson and Dacher Keltner finds that when we experience too much pride or pride without genuine merit, it can lead to negative social outcomes, such as aggressiveness towards others, antisocial behavior, and even an increased risk of mood disorders such as mania. Work underway in my laboratory, led by graduate student Hillary Devlin, supports the tantalizing notion that self-focused positive emotions like pride may actually hinder our ability to empathize, or take another person’s perspective during difficult emotional times.

The bottom line: Certain kinds of happiness may at times hinder our ability to connect with those around us.

4. Pursuing happiness may actually make you unhappy.

Not surprisingly, most people want to be happy. We seem hardwired to pursue happiness, and this is especially true for Americans—it’s even ingrained in our Declaration of Independence.

Yet is pursuing happiness healthy? Groundbreaking work by Iris Mauss has recently supported the counterintuitive idea that striving for happiness may actually cause more harm than good. In fact, at times, the more people pursue happiness the less they seem able to obtain it. Mauss shows that the more people strive for happiness, the more likely they will be to set a high standard for happiness—then be disappointed when that standard is not met.  This is especially true when people were in positive contexts, such as listening to an upbeat song or watching a positive film clip. It is as if the harder one tries to experience happiness, the more difficult it is to actually feel happy, even in otherwise pleasant situations.

My colleagues and I are are building on this research, which suggests that the pursuit of happiness is also associated with serious mental health problems, such as depression and bipolar disorder. It may be that striving for happiness is actually driving some of us crazy.

How to find healthy happiness?

But how exactly can we attain a healthy dose of happiness? This is the million-dollar question.

First, it is important to experience happiness in the right amount. Too little happiness is just as problematic as too much. Second, happiness has a time and a place, and one must be mindful about the context or situation in which one experiences happiness. Third, it is important to strike an emotional balance. One cannot experience happiness at the cost or expense of negative emotions, such as sadness or anger or guilt. These are all part of a complex recipe for emotional health and help us attain a more grounded perspective. Emotional balance is crucial.

Finally, it is important to pursue and experience happiness for the right reasons. Too much focus on striving for happiness as an end in itself can actually be self-defeating. Rather than trying to zealously find happiness, we should work to build acceptance of our current emotional state, whatever it may be. True happiness, it seems, comes from fostering kindness toward others—and toward yourself.

To read the academic paper on which this essay is based, go here .

About the Author


June Gruber

June Gruber, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, and director of the Yale Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory. Dr. Gruber is also a licensed clinical psychologist. She was recently named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science.

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Can You Be Too Happy?

I love this website but I have to say this article annoys me. It’s as if the writer has seen a list of blog writing strategies and decided to go for the “juxtaposition” approach.

“it is important to experience happiness in the right amount.”

In all serious, how many people do you know who tell you “Dammit, I am just too darn happy”?

When is the last time you met someone complaining about their excess of happiness?

If happy people take more risks then I can only say, wonderful. We live in a world of lives half lived because people are afraid. Afraid to take risks, and yes, afraid to be happy.

finally, whilst pusuing happiness may be counter productive, I think that you can apply that to goals in general. The happiness is the journey, not the destination, but nothing new about that observation.

Rannoch | 4:15 am, May 5, 2012 | Link

It’s all about balance, isn’t it?

I found this piece to be a welcome relief from the glut of popular work on happiness, positive psychology, and mindfulness. I’m not opposed to any of these. In fact, my research interests are in the relationship of attachment, dispositional mindfulness and subjective well-being. What I don’t like is the trend I see of jumping on the bandwagon of the latest topic du jour. I thank Dr. Gruber for a refreshing, balanced approach.

John Burik | 2:47 am, May 6, 2012 | Link

Where I appreciate the effort that went into the research and writing of this article, I find it somewhat trivial. I will say that this does not mean that I do not agree with, or can not see, your point of view.

I guess it just seemed a little over the top to do the research that was done in order to reach the conclusions that were made. It all just seems very, well, commonsensical. Is research actually needed to know that something is wrong if you feel happy when you watch a baby cry, or a grown man dig through feces? I would think the answer to that question is pretty obvious.

Also to use the term “groundbreaking” in reference to figuring out that pursuing something could cause more harm than good is a bit dramatic. Yes, of course if you set a goal and fall short you are left unhappy instead of happy, and if the pattern is repeated could lead to depression. So should we just leave it to logic and teach our children that if once you do not succeed give up and never try again? That putting effort into something important to you is not worth it because you may have to work hard and experience a little pain? Should we have low to moderate standards in order to never be let down for being unable to achieve them? No thanks.

You also mention how through research, you found that not all happy feelings are good, or can be destructive. One such example being the emotion or feeling of pride.Is research really necessary to know that too much pride is a bad thing? You can open a history book a there is an abundance of examples of what too much pride can lead cause. Welcome to the cause of most wars throughout our history. You could also just go to a school yard and watch a group of boys play sports or have a crush on the same girl. Most likely they will be rolling around on the ground fighting at some point.

In regards to the notions of too much happiness can be a psychological deterrent, is this not obvious? Is there any mental state, good or bad, that if in its extreme state you would still able to think and function lucidly? Most likely there is not. There are not many, if any, things on this world that when taken to the extreme do not also come with a number of proverbial side effects.

When I was reading this, it honestly read like a satire. It was hard for me to take it too seriously, even though it was full of rational points. It was the level of seriousness that it was written with that caused me to have this disposition. The fact that it was written with the intention of sharing new found groundbreaking discoveries in the human psyche was a bit much for me. Again, as I stated before, I do understand what you are saying and agree with a number of the points made, but to what avail? Are you positive this is not just meant to come across as edgy?

Kyle Melton | 1:42 pm, May 8, 2012 | Link

Please take this as constructive critique. I agree with the first comment about the annoying quality of this article. The title and premise seem designed to catch your attention rather than address a real need. Too much happiness is not a real problem to solve. Then the article disappoints because it’s not really about “too much happiness.” I think each of the 4 topics is worth exploring on their own, but the wrapper is misleading.

Try again, please.

David Delp | 12:57 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

This article makes a lot of sense, particularly in the way it takes happiness out of the “happy meal” category and puts more nuance - and realness - back into the picture. One thought in particular occurred to me in reading it:  how thin the line (or close on the continuum, if you look at it that way) manic behavior can be to genuine happiness.  If our risk taking is untethered to a realistic sense of self, that line has been crossed.  If we are narcissistically damaged, the definition of happiness is likely to include a disregard of threats, a lack of empathy, and the inappropriate expressions of it mentioned by the author.

The more low key versions of happiness Dr. Gruber acknowledges at the end - fostering kindness towards self and others - add a welcome depth to the concept itself.

Greg Jemsek | 5:19 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

I have enjoyed this organization’s website very much for the past few years and I most certainly see the value in your choice to share this article based on it’s relationship to the usual message. I see a lot of annoyed bloggers out there, complaining about the triviality and obvious nature of the discussion despite good points.

In truth, it is sad that we need to do this research, but it is relevant. Why? Because we are OBSESSED with happiness in this country! We avoid unhappiness in this country. Why do you think they call it PROZAC NATION? Far too many people who are only mildly unhappy are on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds because we DO want the false happiness that we see in the media. For example:  “Take this allergy med, take this sexual stimulant and you will be happy! Put an end to your financial woes and YOU WILL BE HAPPY.” Unfortunately, we still haven’t integrated mindfulness and acceptance into our lives; for many, emotions such as grief or simply the blahs and blues are too much for us to tolerate. We mistake them for diseases of depression (i.e.: Major Depression).

Yes,I agree that no-one is complaining of too much happiness; however, they are still deluded in their thinking that happiness is one nose job or tummy tuck away.

The article mentions fostering kindness toward others as an appropriate action toward happiness. I couldn’t agree more. When we discard narcissism for altruism, then we can create the collective happiness that sustains the well-being of the entire society.

Angela | 6:28 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

The author raises some points worthy of discussion, but she appears to think she’s alone or unique in proposing this approach to happiness. There are several previous works that have examined similar areas, including the latest book by Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Rey Carr | 9:16 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

I am relieved to see this as the persuit of happiness can be overdone - yes it is about balance.  I have also noted that happiness, for me, seems to correlate with being in a comfort zone and that correlates with not achieving very much.  I don’t see why we have to be miserable to achieve but it does seem to be a stronger driver for some of us?!  😊

Susan | 11:39 pm, May 16, 2012 | Link

Flaubert said that ‘what a man needs for happiness is three things: good health, selfishness, and stupidity. But if the third is missing, it is disaster’.

Mick Bourke | 11:32 pm, May 20, 2012 | Link

People pursue all sorts of different things and often they do not know why nor does it much matter.  What matters is whether what you pursue is worth pursuing.  And most people pursue some good things and some bad ones.

Roger | 6:07 am, May 21, 2012 | Link

...to paraphrase Berty Russell: happiness makes a pig out of you, e.g., American Billionaires.

carlos lascoutx annis | 6:29 am, May 21, 2012 | Link

One reason this article is irritating is that it treats happiness only as a means, not as an end. So what if one is less creative, or less likely to win a video game or some other artificial competition, if one is happy? Maybe it is those sorts of ambitions that should be criticized as potentially problematic, rather than happiness.

Serge | 7:56 am, May 21, 2012 | Link

I’m amused to see that the author is studying the effects of pride. I think the early Christians nailed that one a long time ago when “Pride” was listed as one of the seven deadly sins.

Bunk McNulty | 8:47 am, May 21, 2012 | Link

“Dr. Gruber is also a licensed clinical psychologist.”

And what happens if people get too happy? They stop hiring clinical psychologists. You don’t have to look hard to see a conflict of interest here.

Jon Jermey | 1:50 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

It might have been more helpful if the author had distinguished between situational happiness - positive emotions in response to an event - and pervasive happiness - an extended positive mood generally unconnected to any particular event.  Situational happiness, even in excessive amounts, is natural, healthy, and by it’s very nature short-lived.  It’s a feeling, not a mood. Pervasive happiness is a positive mood state that is highly desirable at healthy levels, but when experienced at extremes - by irrational levels of optimism, self-confidence, exuberance, expectation, and/or exceptionally high spirits - can be quite problematic.

Sara | 2:15 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

Being irrationally happy is not happiness. Deluding oneself that the next shiny object will bring happiness is not reality.

Too much happiness? Too much sense of entitlement, to much pride, too much ego, too much self regard, all of these things might have a superficial air of happiness about them, but they are not happiness in the real sense.

Better perhaps to acknowledge that people who confuse transient emotions, short term gratification or pleasure at the expense of others with happiness are not in the real sense happy, they are simply shoring up their insecurities.

Valuing others, expressing gratitude, celebrating small pleasures, sharing with those you love. These things define happiness for me and I don’t think we can have too much of them.

Rannoch | 2:24 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

Interesting to see so many comments from people who have taken the time to read the article and express themselves, yet no response from the author.

Rannoch | 2:28 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

Click bait, as a previous poster noted.

You can’t have everything. If happiness means sacrificing creativity, competitiveness, empathy and other socially desirable qualities, then so what? Happiness is its own reward, it needs no further justification. It is the socially desirable attributes which need justification, usually in terms of greater future happiness as the delayed reward for lesser current happiness. Though for those with a strong conscience, doing good works may even lead to greater current happiness.

The Flaubert quote sounds clever but is wrong, because he confuses addiction to social activities (literature, conversation, fashionable clothing, flirting with the opposite sex, Facebook, etc) with intelligence, and lack of interest in social activities as stupidity. Replace “intelligent” with “socialized” and “stupid” with “brutish” and Flaubert’s formula works. Good health + selfishness + brutishness => happiness of an animal or solitary wandering holy man. Good health + selfishness + socialization => disaster.

It might seems that selfishness + socialization would not interfere with happiness for someone who wins all of society’s races at once. Problem is, no one in a democracy is at once richest, most famous, most liked, most beautiful, most powerful, tallest, fastest, most intelligent, etc. Too many races to win them all at once, which means the winner will always be missing something and thus not happy (because socialization implies boundless ambition). Plus, the body degrades. So even if you did win all today’s races, you’d have to worry about losing in the future and that would be a source of worry. An all-powerful dictator could arrange to win all the races, but then dictators have to worry about rebellions. In short, socialization is what causes unhappiness. To achieve happiness, aspire to brutishness, by rejecting the socialized personality in favor of the underlying animal self.

frank r | 2:55 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

Greetings; my name is Jeremy and I’m the Web Editor for the Greater Good Science Center.

I wanted to quickly respond to Rannoch’s comment: “Interesting to see so many comments from people who have taken the time to read the article and express themselves, yet no response from the author.”

I actually think it can be a good thing when authors opt to stay out of reader discussion; at the least, it’s a defensible approach. The author has her say in the article; comments are a space in which others can speak.

Of course, an author may choose to participate in the discussion; that’s actually my own personal policy. But I make exceptions to that—sometimes, depending on the forum or the content of the comments themselves, it’s best to stay out of it. Sometimes I’m just too busy to reply; authors have lives, too.

In any event, it’s up to the authors to decide how they want to engage and how much space they’d like to give other opinions. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that the author is avoiding discussion—and it’s possible she may engage at a later point, after others have had a chance to speak.

Jeremy Adam Smith | 3:18 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

It’s astonishing how few Americans are aware of the origins of the pursuit of happiness in their constitution.

If the author had read Hutcheson he might have presented a coherent summary or critique instead of this rough collage of slender research findings.

stuart munro | 4:39 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

the points in the article seem do like common sense after you’ve read them, but so does most everything else.  I’m happy to see a lively dialogue in the comments section.

Sir Magneto | 5:50 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

I am ambivalent about most of the comments.  I think that empirical research is always a good thing, but I agree with the commenters who criticize the author for being a little too smug.  This is just another one of a thousand cases where subjects that have been discussed and studied for centuries are suddenly trotted out by a social scientist who believes they have reinvented the wheel.  Most of the points the author raises have been known for a long time.    The tension between happiness and creativity has been widely acknowledged and discussed by many of the world’s most famous writers - Nietzsche, Aldous Huxley, Walker Percy .. The list goes on and on.  It has been endlessly discussed since antidepressants hit the market.  The famous book “Listening to Prozac” caused such a stir in part because the author honestly acknowledged that universal happiness would probably eliminate writers like Walter Percy but argued that that was a valid trade-off.   It has also been known for a long time that the happiest people are those who pursue other means - whether a religious calling, a profession, their art, whatever - and experience happiness indirectly as a result.  There is nothing new in this finding.   There is also nothing surprising in the fact that being too happy can have negative consequences.  There is virtually nothing positive that does not have some potential negative in some circumstances.  Every educated person knows this.   The most amusing thing about the article is that after admitting that the happiest people are people who do not directly pursue happiness, he asks “How to find healthy happiness” and gives a numbered approach.  In fact, the happiest people are not people who set out “to experience happiness in the right amount” - the author just said as much in the previous section! All of the evidence suggests that the happiest people have 2 common characteristics 1) they have a genetic disposition to happiness 2) They have found a lifestyle or calling which makes them happy and achieve happiness indirectly.  You can see why people who think they can achieve happiness by setting out to do something called “pursuing happiness” are frequently so disappointed and wind up less happy.   Regardless, would it kill these social scientists to just acknowledge that they didn’t invent wisdom yesterday?

Johnny G Ray | 6:44 pm, May 21, 2012 | Link

It’s folly to go chasing after happiness. Pursue consciousness instead. Google “The Meaning of Evolved Consciousness.”

Peter Michaelson | 10:06 am, May 24, 2012 | Link

It seems to me like you’re trying too hard to find a reason to take a controversial position… this felt like very sophisticated click bait

mangooler | 5:42 pm, May 25, 2012 | Link

To connect “excessive alcohol consumption, binge eating, sexual promiscuity, and drug use”, the favorite pastime of people in despair,  with happiness ... wow! This one’s new.

Seriously guys, you just want to get into The Guinness Book Of World Records for overcoming the greatest-ever distance between something and something that it is not - don’t you?

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” (observed Samuel Beckett before us). You sure put in work to prove the point. Point proven. Actually, your headline alone does the trick.

Beat Schindler | 2:23 am, May 26, 2012 | Link

Happiness, in the truest sense of the word is not achievable for a humanity which remains prisoner to it’s evolutionary roots. For in defining that aspiration, the most important element of happiness must be freedom from fear. And knowledge and values have not advanced far enough to secure that final freedom in any but the most temporary and transient of ways. Wisdom still eludes us!

robert landbeck | 4:46 am, May 27, 2012 | Link

Where do you GET all this excessive happiness?  Happiness is a sometime thing.  Like being on a slow rollercoaster with only one big peak.  As soon as you’re on the top, for a brief moment you’re ‘happy’, but you spend most of your time morosely chugging along on a level track, hoping and waiting to get back on the peak.

Lassie | 8:34 am, May 27, 2012 | Link

When I first read about the law of emotional balance a few years ago at http://www.ofgrandeur.com , i thought the author was nuts, but now it seems that everyone is jumping on the emotional balance bandwagon. It is really starting to look like there is no free happiness.

Bradley | 5:45 pm, May 27, 2012 | Link

Having experienced deep levels of unhappiness, this article is totally contradictory to my own personal life experiences. For example: Pride and happiness????// Pride are happiness are not correlated in my opinion. Pride is the ego. I could easily put across a very different viewpoint from the ones above (with practical, real life experiences). In fact my unhappiness was soooo low, I no longer wanted to live. I turned it around within 5 months! I had a dream and passion to help others who were experiencing unhappiness, so wrote a book ‘Moving on Up! Secrets to an Upbeat and Happy Life’ it’s for anyone who knows they can be happier but doesn’t yet know how to do that. I know that with the right help people can feel happier. There is also a free 17 mins de-stressing/relaxation audio available on my website http://www.movingonupnitasaini.com . I wonder what the world is coming to when I read articles like the one above. That’s my opinion though and we’re all entitled to those.

Nita | 12:05 am, May 29, 2012 | Link

I cannot agree more with this article.Too much happiness can make one feel haughty and arrogant that he/she has everything and possess does not care attitude.However, we all try to achieve that state work hard to fulfill our dreams.I do believe that title should have been like “The Adverse Effects of Happiness.”

ATSNE | 11:34 pm, May 31, 2012 | Link

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