Critical Review on Contagiousness of Happiness

03 Apr 2018

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  • Chan Jia En

In this work of critical evaluation, there will be an evaluation of the research work done about the impact on an individual’s well-being based on the well-being of the people in the surroundings including their family members that could be father, mother, siblings etc. The family members could be genetically related or not related; both the cases will be considered as per the research work. The study that was conducted on the two types of twins that is monozygotic and dizygotic will be discussed too. It will be seen that whether all these factors are co-related or not in context with happiness. The aspect of social network and happiness of individual will be considered.

Recently, a research study showed that happiness is contagious and it spreads through social networks, but on the other hand when the twin research was conducted, no such conclusion could be made because it stated that these factors are not co-related, these factors had zero to no influence. Psychologists now focus on positive attributes than negative ones as it has been recognized that positive emotions are predictive. A research to find out this focuses on positive effects, negative effects and the satisfaction level of an individual with their own lives. Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire’s (MPQ) well-being scale is considered as a personality measure. It can be said that if an individual is optimistic and that state of mind persists for some time then the point of view of looking at things is positive too and they are co-related. Whether it is possible or not, to define happiness, the study that is conducted on the two types of twins which are the monozygotic and dizygotic shows that genetic factors constitute 40-50% of happiness variance as measured by MPQ and SWB.

There is a limitation to the method of twin study as for Monozygotic twins it is considered that they do not share a similar environment compared to that of the dizygotic twins. If it is assumed that monozygotic twins have a similar environment and this similarity is related to the observable characteristics, that is the behavioural patterns or traits then the heritability. It would be overestimated and non-behavioural patterns would be underestimated. That is why this non-behavioural method questions the findings observed by the twin study.

Much attention was drawn to the study of the impact of happiness level of people when they are in their own social network. For this a social network analysis of happiness was done by the authors (Fowler and Christakis, 2008) on the participants of the Framingham Heart Study. Regression model was used to see the impact of the happiness level of an individual on the people in their surroundings including friends, relatives, and neighbours etc. This regression model focused on an individual. And the result was drawn that individuals are 15.3% more likely to be happy if the people in their surrounding are happy. And this effect goes up to three levels in persons that is (friend of a friend of a friend). Results drawn from the regression model states that happiness is contagious and spread from person to person.

The data derived from this method was used to study the social network effects on many health related issues such as obesity and smoking. It is found that the individuals getting along with the people having the same kind of interest as them get clustered together. It is easily seen and understood that how an individual’s habits and behaviours can influence others surrounding them. And on the other side contagion doesn’t get justified when we consider factors that are skin problems, headaches etc. Alternative Explanation for the similarity must be considered and it is important to do so.

According to Cohencole and Fletcher (2008b) social network design is not capable to directly control the contextual influences and cannot rule them out of the possibility. Homophily is another possible explanation for similarity. It is the ability of an individual to bond with the similar other individual. Fowler and Christakis (2008) included previous alter and ego happiness in regressions, but if the selection is not conditioned only on these variables homophily is still a possibility. Individuals create their own environment by their selection of jobs, activities etc. and hence they get in touch with the individuals with the similar attributes.

There is one last limitation to Fowler and Christakis study that it includes the relatives in the network and genetic influences are considered too. Since it includes family members and it is obvious that family members do share the genes and environment, the similarity between the individual and them could be because of either of the two factors stated above. And the inclusion of the relatives might imply the similarity between the egos and alter reflects because they share the genetic effects rather than it being the social contagion. Study reveals that out the 4,739 egos included in the study, only 45% had friends in the network, 39% had their co-workers and only 10% had a neighbour in the network, rest others that mean would be the family members and relatives and it means that majority had the family members. So similarity is the factor considering the genes and the shared environment.

To test the contagion hypothesis the research is conducted on the biological and adoptive family members. If happiness is to be considered contagious the family members would feel the same happiness be it biologically related or not. A biometrical modelling of well-being is adopted which is the adoption design where adoptees share 0% of genes and 100% environment, so any of the similarity can be because of the shared environment. If we include the adoptees, it helps to do the research in a better way because adoptees are not genetically related and so other characteristics can be looked upon too. Homophily can be controlled and kept up a check upon because then they are no more than strangers in the family. Thus, by doing so, the effect of the genetically unrelated adoptee’s happiness can be seen on the individual residing in the same environment. So, here we can say that the contagion effect cannot be separated from the shared environment that is playing role in the happiness co-relation of the individual. On the other side if the shared environment does not play role in influencing the happiness then possibility of the contagion effect can be ruled out it means that if an individual’s well-being is not affected even though he shares the same environment as the other family members be it adoptive or biological, friends then the contagion effect can be ruled out too. The physical proximity is more emphasized by the authors that lead to the contagion factor which means that the individuals in the research were all living in the same environment with the same people. It means that the contagion effect arises because of more and more of interaction amongst each other. Since they see and interact with each other on a day to day basis, the physical proximity is there. Since majority of the individuals were still living with their families, this would lead to a great amount of contagion effect which in turn would give a best result for the contagion hypothesis.

Based on the twin studies, past researchers have found no significant variance taking into consideration the shared environment. That is why they rise a need to test the effect of shared environment. We see that the effects of environment effects in the adoptive family analysis is found then according to Fowler and Christakis’s study the behavioural genetic research may not be completely out of way.

A research is conducted to test contagion hypothesis and the shared environment effect on the participants from the Sibling Interaction and Behaviour Study (SIBS). In this research each family comprised of at least one parent and two adolescent offspring (M= 14.92 years, SD= 1.56). And the offspring had to be 5 years apart from each other. And in the case of the adoptive family the offspring had to be place for adoption before 2 years of age (M=4.7 months, SD =3.4 months). And 63% of adoptive families and 57% of biological families agreed to participate in this research. Well-being scale of MPQ method was used to measure the happiness. It was measured twice across the 3 years gap. The well-being scale is measured from the value starting from 1 = definitely true to 4= definitely false. Adoptive, biological and mixed family are considered in this case of study.

As a result of this study, it is seen that there is no evidence of sex difference in well-being be it target or the parents. At a three year follow up the correlations remain near zero. The findings of this method that target happiness is not related to the individual in his/her surrounding with whom he/she has been living for an extended period of time presents a challenge to the contagion hypothesis. But there are a few limitations of this study that it doesn’t consider if the siblings are of same sex or the opposite sex because the same sex siblings may be more similar than the opposite sex siblings. Another limitation is the correlation of the spouses which look different; however they were not different significantly. Moreover, using the adoptees may not be an ideal thing to do.

In conclusion, after all the discussion about the impact of individual’s happiness on the people in the surroundings be it family members, friends, relatives, co-workers, spouse. It can be said that contagion effect, twin study, adoptive family analysis including genetic effects, physical proximity all have some or the other limitations. But each one of the analysis has their pros and cons like contagion effect is not always seen when considered individually. Adoptive family method considers the non-genetically related family members and hence the results may vary. And then the genetic effects come into picture and the other factors are not looked upon. Physical proximity is the factor where the direct interaction amongst each other plays a big in showing up the contagion effect. It definitely can be said that if the persons around an individual are happy then that individual would be happy too and the attitude of looking towards the problems would be positive too. And there are some discrepancies in our method and the Fowler and Christakis’s method that can be accounted to the study design and sample. On one had we used a behavioral genetic design they performed social network research. And our study included both adolescents and adults there method had all the adults. But in our case of study the samples included were adoptees and that is not the ideal scenario to conduct this type of research. There is a possibility to see the contagion effect in the parent-sibling relationship because they live in the same environment. Fowler and Christakis used items from CES-D which asks the experience in last week whereas MPQ used by us ask same experiences in general.


Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2007). The spread of obesity in a large network over 32 years, New England Journal of medicine, PP 357

Cohen S & Pressman, S.D. (2006). Positive Affect and Health.Current Directions in  Psychological Science, Vol 1, PP 135 Retrieved on 26th April 2014

Fredrickson, B. & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being.Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.

Radloff, L. S. (1997). The CES-D Scale: A self-report depression scale for research in general population. Applied psychological measurement, Volume 1, PP 385 – 401.

Raiskums, B.W. (2008).An Analysis of the Concept Criticality in Adult Education. Capella University, New York Press, retrieved on 30th April 2014

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