Three degrees of happiness

From the exhibition "Dear Friend," at the International Center for Photography.

Usually, I’m slightly skeptical of such reports, but the scope of Harvard Medical School’s recent study on the spread of happiness is really impressive. Over 20 years, scholars studied a group of around 50,000 people to determine how happiness spreads in a group. (An article on their findings can be found here.)

If you are happy, “a friend living within a mile experiences a 25 percent increased chance of becoming happy. A co-resident spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance, siblings living within one mile have a 14 percent increased chance, and for next-door neighbors, 34 percent.” What’s most amazing, however, is that a friend of that friend, too, gains a nearly 10 percent chance of increased happiness, and a friend of that friend has a 5.6 percent increased chance — a three-degree boon.

“We’ve found that while all people are roughly six degrees separated from each other, our ability to influence others appears to stretch to only three degrees,” says one of the researchers. “It’s the difference between the structure and function of social networks.”

The closer a friend lives to you physically, the more likely they are to benefit. And the benefits are better than cold, hard cash. Receiving an extra $5,000 increases chances for happiness by around 2 percent. But, as a researcher notes, “Someone you don’t know and have never met — the friend of a friend of a friend — can have a greater influence than hundreds of bills in your pocket.”

This study actually makes me feel happy—and, actually, it was sent to me by a friend!