In the existential play No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre famously remarked that, “Hell is other people.” There is more than a grain of truth to this; from telemarketers, to people who chew too loud, to the tall guy who always sits in front of you at the theater, there is little doubt that other people can be painfully annoying. But psychological studies done over the last few decades paint a different picture. Researchers now know that Sartre couldn’t have been more wrong; other people, it turns out, are actually a strong source of happiness.
As psychologist David Myers explains in his 2000 paper “The Fund, Friends, and Faith of Happy People,” “A mountain of data reveals that most people are happier when attached than when unattached.” In other words, those who have the strongest social, familial and romantic relationships tend to be happier than those who do not. Strong social relationships moreover make us healthier. Research shows that “compared with those having few social ties, people supported by close relationships with friends, family, or fellow members of church, or other support groups are less vulnerable to ill-health and premature death.”
These points are well established and should seem obvious; everyone probably knows through experience that it is more enjoyable and feels better to be around happy people than it is to be around unhappy people. An important study that speaks to this point comes from Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary. In their 1995 paper, Baumeister and Leary argue that contrary to the Freudian view, which places sexuality and aggression at the center of human motivation, and unlike behaviorism where babies are born as blank slates, human beings are “naturally driven toward establishing and sustaining belongingness.” This means that regardless of age, gender, income, nationality or culture, we are all intrinsically motivated to seek out and establish social ties. As David Brooks says in his latest book The Social Animal, “we emerge out of relationships and we are deeply interpenetrated, one with another.”
What’s less obvious is how health and happiness spread throughout social networks from person to person.
This is the subject of one chapter of Connected, a 2009 book by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. After an extensive analysis they found two major findings that answer this question. First, unhappy people cluster with unhappy people and happy people cluster with happy people and second, unhappy people are more peripheral. The graph below, in which yellow dots indicate the most happy people, purple dots represent the least happy people and green dots are intermediate, illustrates this well.
Mathematically, Christakis and Fowler found that “each happy friend a person has increases that person’s probability of being happy by about 9 percent [and] each unhappy person decreases it by 7 percent…this helps explain why past researchers have found an association between happiness and the number of friends and family.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should play the odds and try to make friends with as many people as possible. Instead, what’s important is quality not quantity. As the authors conclude, “having more friends is not enough – having more happy friends is the key to our own emotional well-being.”
Another important finding is that proximity matters. In other studies Christakis and Fowler found the following: one of three people live within a mile of their closest friend; a friend who lives less than a mile away who becomes happy increases the probability that you will be happy by 25 percent; when a spouse you live with becomes happy the probability that you will become happy increases; when you live within a mile of a happy sibling your chances of being happy increase; and finally, happy next-door neighborhoods increase your chance of being happy.
The downside is that similar trends were found for loneliness. In their words, “if a nearby friend has ten extra lonely days a year, it will increase the number of lonely days you experience by about three. If this person is a close friend, then the effect is stronger, and you’ll experience four extra days of loneliness.” There is even one study which showed that when college freshmen dorm with depressed people, they become increasingly depressed over the course of a semester. In this regard, Sartre was dead-on.
Christakis and Fowler conclude that happiness, unhappiness, and loneliness ripple through social networks not unlike ripples in a pond. The important part of the metaphor is that waves are strongest closer to the epicenter. This means that emotions are contagious and proximity matters. But they caution that it is difficult to say, “what [exactly] causes happiness to spread.”
To be sure, psychologists now know from extensive research that happiness is about 50% genetic. So, while emotional contagion and proximity matter, the influence of other people (excluding parents of course) only goes so far; no matter what, we will almost always return to a default level of happiness.
In the mean time, however, don’t listen to Sartre because according to the data, it sounds like Heaven is other people.