Is happiness contagious in online social networks?

How Happiness Affects Others

If your Facebook friends are smiley, you're smiley. 
If your Facebook friends are smiley, you're smiley. 
Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images

While most people realize that it's important to take control of your own happiness, these new studies have shown an unexpected reason for this. In the past, it was thought that your emotions only affected you. We now understand that your happiness can affect not only you and your family, but people you don't even know. If online social networks mimic real life, then your happiness, or lack of it, could have a profound effect on people across the globe.

That doesn't mean you should ditch sad or negative friends. In fact, studies have shown that sadness doesn't hold nearly the emotional contagion power as happiness. Sadness in a social network doesn't spread as quickly or with as much strength as happiness. Researchers believe that this may be because we're wired as humans to take on what is best for us, so we're more susceptible to the power of happiness.

What about infecting the workplace with happiness? Is that possible? Unfortunately not. Unless you're genuinely friends with your co-workers, happiness won't spread, no matter how cheerful you are. Why? Researchers can only guess, but they believe that we are so hard-wired for competition in the workplace that a co-worker's happiness is interpreted as a threat. His or her happiness, you see, may come at our expenses.

The research on happiness and is its infectious nature is limited. The consensus among researchers is that the Christakis-Fowler study is intriguing, but it brings up as many questions as it answers. In the past, social contagion was linked to height, headaches and skin conditions. Further study, however, showed that the true link was environmental. Will further study on happiness prove the same thing?

And what about this idea that happiness spreads through online social networks? Do smiling Facebook pictures mean that people have caught happiness from one another, or is it a case of homophily, where happy people are attracted to each other? Or, perhaps it's neither, and rather the Facebook users posted smiling profile pictures so they wouldn't look grouchy alongside their friends -- a kind of online peer pressure.

For more information on social networks, visit the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Belluck, Pam. "Strangers May Cheer You Up." The New York Times. Dec. 5, 2008. (May 12, 2009).
  • Christakis, Nicholas A. and Fowler, James H. "Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study." Dec. 4, 2008. (May 12, 2009)
  • Goleman, Daniel. "The Brain Manages Happiness and Sadness in Different Centers." The New York Times. March 28, 1995. (May 12, 2009).
  • Park, Alice. "The Happiness Effect." Time. Dec. 11, 2008. May 12, 2009.,9171,1865960,00.html.
  • Rampell, Catherine. "Other Potential Causes of Happiness." The New York Times. March 13, 2009. (May 12, 2009).
  • Stein, Rob. "Happiness Can Spread Among People Like a Contagion, Study Indicates." The Washington Post. Dec. 5, 2008. (May 12, 2008).