Research Roundup

May 29, 2019 Phil McRae

Happiness as Contagion


Thinking about my personal journey as a teacher (and learner) brings me a great deal of joy, especially when I think of the many people (young and old) that I have come to know through my profession. I took special notice this year while presenting at our annual teachers’ conventions and asked colleagues across the province to share with each other why they joined the profession and why, in particular, they love being a teacher. I asked this question because I was sharing some research on growing challenges in our classrooms, like aggression in schools and school communities, and wanted to engender some uplifting conversations before wading into the gloomy waters.

What struck me about these uplifting conversations was how happiness began to take a firm hold across the different audiences and spread into hopeful exchanges in the hallways and refreshment breaks. This is not insignificant, for happiness is contagious, and just like sadness, it can move quickly through a population. In fact, research suggests happiness moves even faster through a population than sadness.

There are now several research studies that document happiness as contagion, with one of the most interesting emerging from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego. The lead researchers, Dr. Nicholas Christakis and Dr. James Fowler (2008), analyzed data gathered between the years 1983 and 2003 across nearly 5,000 individuals, which assessed happiness by asking people to respond to statements like “I felt hopeful about the future” and “I was happy.”

Exposure to happy people can improve the collective chances of becoming happy


What these researchers discovered across more than 53,000 social and family ties was fascinating. When a person in this study reported being happy, then their spouse had an eight per cent chance of becoming happy, with the effects lasting up to one year. The data further showed that the brothers and sisters of a happy sibling had a 14 per cent increased chance of virally catching the happiness bug. Further afield, friends of a happy person living up to a mile away increased their chance of becoming happy by 25 per cent, with next-door neighbours being the beneficiaries of a 34 per cent increased chance of becoming happy. This study also found that while having more friends certainly increased happiness, it was more important to have happy friends who were key influencers of the social network’s happiness.

As Dr. Fowler reported to WebMD (2008), indirect relationships affect happiness: “We found a statistical relationship not just between your happiness and your friends’ happiness, but between your happiness and your friends’ friends’ friends’ happiness.” In other words, our own happiness has the potential to influence up to three degrees of separation—a friend of a friend of a friend—and therefore positively impact people that you may have never met. In schools this means that the viral spread of happiness is a collective and rapidly spreading phenomenon and presents our schools as sites of opportunity to unlock a wider community’s chances of increasing happiness.

So why does this all matter? Across Canada we have a large and growing body of research that is pointing to a dramatic rise in the reported cases of anxiety and depression in children and youth, including increases in suicidal ideation, which is causing some very real and growing concerns among the teaching profession and from those who care for children and youth on a daily basis. While many sustained, resourced, thoughtful and strategic actions are required to address individual and societal well-being, perhaps we might also look to the research on happiness as contagion and how exposure to happy people can improve the collective chances of becoming happy.

As Fowler and Christakis (2008) state in their study, “happiness is a fundamental object of human existence, so much so that the World Health Organization is increasingly emphasizing happiness as a component of health” (p.1). As we continue to learn more about how our social networks positively and negatively impact our collective health and wellness, perhaps we might want to start embracing a simple but powerful philosophy: don’t worry, be happy.


Boyles, S. 2008. Happiness is Contagious: Social Networks Affect Mood, Study Shows. WebMD website. (accessed April 1, 2019).

Fowler J., and N. Christakis. 2008. “Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study.” British Medical Journal 337: a2338. (accessed April 1, 2019).


Phil McRae, PhD, is the associate co-ordinator of research for the Alberta Teachers’ Association and an adjunct professor within the faculty of education at the University of Alberta.

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