If money can’t buy you happiness, then what can get it for you? Dr. John Schinnerer examines many aspects of the elusive word and the notion that happiness can be learned.
Happiness is catching. Happiness spreads through friends, spouses, siblings and neighbors. There is a ripple effect whereby happiness extends widely through social networks, even between people who may not know one another. One’s happiness depends on the degree of happiness of those surrounding her.
First of a kind study on Happiness at Harvard?
A study performed at Harvard University, by Nicholas Christakis, is the first of its kind to demonstrate the existence of clusters of happy and sad individuals. Happiness depends upon the happiness of those around them. What’s more, individuals who surround themselves with happy people are more likely to be happy in the future. One’s future happiness can actually be predicted by the number of happy people surrounding them and the degree to which the social network as a whole experiences constructive emotions, such as happiness. These findings come from an analysis of the Framingham Heart Study social network, a longitudinal study that has followed nearly 5,000 people for over 20 years.
Happiness Spreads Through Social Networks
Study findings suggest that happiness results from the spread of happiness throughout social networks and not merely from individuals choosing to surround themselves with like-minded individuals. For example, if your next door neighbor becomes happier due to a job promotion, your likelihood of becoming happier increases by 34%. And this happiness effect can linger for up to one year.
Happiness Ripples Out to Friends of Your Friends
This relationship between individual’s happiness holds true for the first three degrees of separation. For example, when John becomes happier, it buoys the happiness of John’s friends as well as the friends of John’s friends. So there is a ripple effect of happiness within social circles where happiness is contagious and spreads similar to the waves of a wireless network. And we are consciously aware of little, if any, of it.
In the past five to ten years, more and more studies have looked at happiness and what determines it (e.g., genetics, money, elections, marital status and emotional management). However, no study has looked at human happiness as it relates to the happiness of others. While the study is the first of its kind and needs to be replicated to ensure the accuracy of these findings, the findings are remarkable and exhilarating.
Positive Emotional Contagion
Emotional contagion, the process by which one person picks up the feelings of another, has been scientifically documented since 1994. Emotions may be ‘caught’ from others for a length of time ranging from seconds to weeks. This is particularly true of destructive emotions – anger, fear and sadness. In fact, the hard part is not ‘catching’ the emotions but in protecting oneself from them, keeping them at bay. Until this study, emotional contagion had not been documented for any of the positive, constructive emotions such as joy, contentment, peacefulness or happiness.
The difficulty is that most people primarily feel destructive emotions. Most people experience more destructive emotions than constructive emotions.
Cutoff Point for a Happy, Thriving Life
On the other hand, roughly 10% of adults in the United States feel three times as much positive emotion as negative. This 3:1 ratio is the measuring stick for a thriving happy life as set by Barbara Fredrickson at UNC Chapel Hill. It appears that this top 10% is raising the level of happiness of many others. Imagine if it were possible to raise this thriving, happy portion of the population to 15% or 20%.
Benefits of Increasing Societal Happiness
Assuming the percentage of the populace experiencing happiness could be improved, here are just a few of the possible societal benefits:
• The economy would improve (e.g., higher ratios of positive, open-ended inquiries are present in executive teams in highly successful firms)
• Creativity would increase (e.g., happiness is necessary for greater innovation and open-mindedness)
• Productivity would soar (e.g., a happy employee is a productive employee; optimistic salespeople outsell pessimistic ones by approximately 38%; happy employees engage more effectively with customers)
• The burden on the health care system would be eased (e.g., happiness improves immune system functioning; teaching the skills of happiness and optimism reduces depression and anxiety).
• People would live longer (e.g., happy, optimistic people live 7 – 10 years longer than those who are pessimistic and unhappy)
• The educational system would show significant academic gains (e.g., students taught to be more happy and optimistic showed significant gains on achievement testing and received better grades)
Happiness is Learnable
The exciting part is that happiness can be taught. It can be learned. People can learn to feel positive emotions more frequently and more intensely. Emotional management is a learnable skill. Just as one practices a sport and improves over time so it is with emotions. As individuals learn to string together more and more happy moments, the ripple effect spills over and one person’s happiness positively influences others. It even influences the happiness of other people they don’t know.
The goal is emotional management. The goal is happiness. The goal is to learn to mitigate destructive emotions and encourage positive emotions. Happiness is social phenomena. The more individuals experience positive emotions, the more society as a whole is happier, healthier, and more productive and that is no small feat.
By John Schinnerer, Ph.D.
Dr. John Schinnerer is in private practice helping individuals learn happiness by mitigating destructive emotions and fostering constructive emotions. His practice is located in the Danville-San Ramon Medical Center at 913 San Ramon Valley Blvd., #280, Danville, California 94526. He graduated summa cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology. Dr. Schinnerer has been an executive and psychologist for over 10 years. Dr. John Schinnerer is President and Founder of Guide To Self, a company that coaches clients to their potential using the latest in positive psychology, mindfulness and attentional control. Dr. John Schinnerer hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a prime time radio show, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Schinnerer is President of Infinet Assessment, a psychological testing company to help firms select the best applicants. Dr. Schinnerer’s areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to moral development, to sports psychology. Dr. Schinnerer wrote the award-winning, “Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought,” which is available at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com and AuthorHouse.com.
More on Happiness
The Art Of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard cutler is available at Chapters
The two saintly brothers, Rebbe Zushe and Rebbe Elimelech,
who lived in 18th century Poland, wandered from town to town
for years. Disguised as beggars, seeking to refine
their characters and encourage and teach their fellows.
Once while traveling with a group of vagabonds,
one of the beggars was accused of stealing. Since justice then
was not like justice now, the entire band of beggars was thrown
into jail where they spent the night.
When they awoke in their prison cell in the morning,
Rabbi Zushe noticed his brother weeping silently.
“Why do you cry?” asked Rabbi Zushe.
R. Elimelech pointed to the pail situated in the corner
of the room which the inmates used for a toilet.
“Jewish law forbids one to pray in a room
inundated with such a repulsive odor,” he told his brother.
“This will be the first day in my life
in which I will not have the opportunity to pray.”
“And why are you upset about this?” asked R. Zushe.
“What do you mean?” responded his brother.
“How can I begin my day without connecting to G-d?”
“By not praying in this room,” said R. Elimelech,
“You have achieved a connection with G d.
True, it is not the connection that you had sought.
Yet, if you truly want the Divine connection,
you would be happy that G d has afforded you the opportunity
to obey His law at this time, no matter what it is.”
His brother’s viewpoint, allowing him to view his problem
as part and parcel of his relationship with G-d,
elated R. Elimelech’s heart. The awareness that the
waste-filled pail in the corner of the room allowed him
the opportunity to enjoy an intimate, though different
type of relationship with G-d inspired him so deeply
that he began to dance.
The two brothers were now holding hands
and dancing in celebration of their newly discovered
relationship with their Father in heaven
The non-Jewish inmates imprisoned in the same cell
were so moved by the sight, that they soon joined the dancing.
It did not take long before the entire room was swept away
by an electrifying energy of joy, as dozens of prisoners
were dancing and jumping around ecstatically.
The guards heard the commotion and came running. Witnessing
the two brothers dancing—with their long beards and flowing
tzitzit—the guards asked the other prisoners what had happened.
“We have no idea!” they answered mystified.
“Those two Jews were discussing the pail in the corner when,
all of a sudden they came to some happy conclusion and began to dance.”
“Is that right?” sneered the guards.
“They’re happy because of the pail, are they?
We’ll show them!” They promptly removed the pail from the cell.
Rebbe Zusha turned to his brother and said:
“And now, my brother, you can begin your prayers.”
*Adapted from the Hasidic story of Yerachmiel Tilles