Thursday, October 8, 2009

Is Happiness A Choice?

When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you;
When you’re laughing, when you’re laughing, the sun comes shining through.


The cover of my Wired magazine this month has the words Cheer Up emblazoned on the top left, referencing a story by Jonah Lehrer on happiness. According to new research, which Lehrer shares in an article aptly titled The Buddy System, happiness is contagious.

Intuitively we have all known this, but it behooves science to not accept the obvious as true until it is demonstrated scientifically. As an example, picture a board room and everyone is serious. Then someone comes in smiling and the room lights up. It could be a scene in a bar, or any kind of setting, actually.

When I was a kid growing up in NJ my dad used to turn on the radio every morning at seven and listen to the news on WOR, followed by Rambling With Gambling. What I remember is that the show always began with or played upbeat music like Zippidee-Doo-Dah and When You’re Smiling.

Well, this new research attempts to specifically quantify the impact of happy people on others. In an L.A. Times piece last December titled Happiness is contagious, research finds based on the same research, “Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself, the study found. A happy friend of a friend increases your odds of happiness by 9.8%, and even your neighbor's sister's friend can give you a 5.6% boost.”

In other words, if you’re feeling blue, you can actually increase your odds of getting a lift by choosing to surround yourself with happy people.

In the B.F.Skinner model of life we’re pretty much victims of our upbringing, conditioning, etc. Freudian psychology’s pop misapplications lead us to accept that we are victims of our subconscious drives. New genetic research shows how much of who we are is encrypted in our DNA. All this begs the question, Is happiness really a choice?

There is a sense in which this is what Plato’s metaphor of the man in the cave is about. If we move out of our dark, holed up existence underground and climb out into the light, the new circumstances will be enlightening. One way to do this might be to go share an evening with a cheerful friend.

And to some extent that's what the social networks are about... According to Lehrer, joy is indeed contagious, both off line and on the net. Let's crank up the volume: Oh Happy Day!

6 comments:

Michael Fitzgerald said...

A new book, Connected, by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, talks in detail about how our social networks affect our demeanor, and not just our happiness, either. They argue it can affect our weight, our health and other physical things. So having happy friends is a plus, but having friends with happy friends may be even more important.

ENNYMAN said...

I just checked out the reviews on Amazon. Pretty high praise. Dovetails nicely with the other research on this topic.
It makes sense, of course, esp. when you see the positive and negative impacts of healthy and unhealthy work environments, one of our biggest social spheres.
Also dovetails nicely with the concept of the mastermind group in Nap Hill's Think and Grow Rich, chapter nine. (chap nine if I remember correctly) where a group brain forms ideas none of the individuals would conceive. Mad magazine even did a variant on this with Dave Berg's Lighter Side of... in one of his cartoons on teenage boys.

thanks for sharing
e.

Christella said...

I think this is why I like happy friends. They uplift me and I hope when I'm happy I can be uplifting to them. My friends are very important to me. Sour people turn me off and I do think some people choose to be unhappy. No matter what you do you cannot change them.

ENNYMAN said...

Yeah, I know what you mean.

I myself am not always cheerful, and can tend toward being melancholy at times though less so than when I was younger. I can relate to Manic Depression by Hendrix... I get energized and I get blue, but I try to see through always to the silver lining. I know some people who seek out the sour grapes and there is plenty to be sour about.
We have much to be grateful for and can never lose sight of that. The Apostle Paul wrote, "I have learned the secret of being content in all circumstances." He was in prison when he wrote that.

I remember in gym class when we were doing the minispringboard over the horse. You were supposed to look up at the corner of the ceiling and your back would arch and it all went right. If you looked down at the floor your body would follow. I have always thought that was a good illustration of our attitudes. Our emotions follow our vision.

Anyways, be well and thanks for sharing.
e.

LEWagner said...

And what's so nice about it, is that ANYONE can choose happiness, if that anyone so chooses!!!
Even an innocent person being slowly tortured to death by a sadistic interrogator could choose happiness, if that person wanted to!!!
Sure, you betcha.
Thank you for the sensitivity and intelligence you generously and warm-heartedly share -- in your blog and other writings, daily, Ed.
You're a cheer all in yourself.

ENNYMAN said...

LEW: I am completely cognizant of the reality that many are suffering. Life is hard, and the world is broken, no question about it.

There are, however, some things within our power. Individually we can try to do what is within our sphere to help others. As for ourselves, if we are alcoholics, we can choose to stay out of bars. If we are unhappy (today's theme) and want to be happier, the research cited here indicates that if we choose happier friends we increase our odds of being happy ourselves.

I do not endorse the new age view that our goal is to be blissfully ignorant of others’ suffering as long as I am happy myself. And I personally get tired of seeing smiling faces on billboards as if people are smiling and mindlessly cheerful all the time.

There is something to be said for happiness, however. And I wasn’t aware that sharing research about this topic was something that makes me, or the many other publications writing about it, insensitive.