Appreciation is contagious (Day 63)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

When you practice joyful appreciation (mudita) or any of the related attitudes such as kindness (metta) or compassion (mudita), you become happier.

Your friends become measurably happier because you’re happy.

Your friends’ friends become measurably happier.

And your friends’ friends’ friends’ become measurably happier.

Happiness spreads outward into the world through your social network like a virus — although a rather beneficial one.

This may all seem rather incredible, but I stress the word “measurably” above because the evidence for this is solid, and is based on a huge study carried out by Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego.

Professor of Medical Genetics James H. Fowler (he’s the San Diego guy) and social scientist Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, (from Harvard) have been studying social networks for several years, using data from the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which has been tracking the health, behaviors, and attitudes of tens of thousands of people since 1948.

The study measures many aspects of health, including happiness. Participants have been asked how likely they are to agree with questions like “I feel hopeful about the future” and “I feel happy.” And the study also tracks social networks, allowing the researchers to see how attitudes and behaviors spread.

Fowler and Christakis have found that if you have overweight friends, you’re more likely to be overweight yourself. If you have friends who don’t smoke, you’ll find it easier to give up smoking. If your friends are unhappy, you’re more likely to be unhappy yourself. And, as we’ve seen, if you’re happy your friends are more likely to be happy, and if your friends are happy you’re more likely to be happy.

In fact, if you’re happy you increase the changes of an immediate social contact becoming happy by 15%. And this effect ripples out into your friend’s friend’s relationships. The effect becomes weaker as it does so, but it’s still measurable in your friends’ friends’ friends’.

There’s a rather lovely image from the Buddhist tradition that ties in with this. On a traditional Buddhist altar there are always three offerings: Candles, which represent the light of the Buddha illuminating our own lives; flowers, which represent the teachings unfolding within us; and incense, which represents the way the skillful attitudes we develop in our practice percolate into the world around us. Just as the incese we burn doesn’t confine itself to the room in which we’re meditating, but ripples endlessly out into the world, so the changes we bring about in ourselves don’t stop with us, but affect those around us, and those around them, and so on and so on, flowing out into the world, with no limit.

There are a couple of important points you can take away from all this.

First, you can be confident that as you meditate and as you practice lovingkindness, compassion, and appreciative joy in daily life, you’re transforming the world around you. Feel the power! It’s real!

Second, you might want to be careful who you hang out with. If you suffer from depression and some of your friends and colleagues are miserable and some are happy, you might want to try spending a bit more time with your more upbeat crowd.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • When I tell people that I practice to change the world and that it works they usually looked at me like I’m some kind of megalomaniac psycho – which I kind of like. Feels more important than a vegetarian, Buddhist on a bicycle!

    But seriously. No matter what I did it would affect me because what you are and what you do are the same thing. Now I am part of the world so I have ipso facto changed the world.

    But that is only a tiny bit of the world not really THE WORLD my friends retort so I have to point out network theory and the fact that we are only six handshakes from the president and we all fear a flu pandemic that would reach all six billion humans in a few months and the butterfly effect etc. Then we usually change the subject. Nobody really likes to admit to having that much responsibility for their actions.

    Love the posts Bodhipaksa – keep it up.

    • Thank you, Roger. Even though the effects a happy person has were only measured out to their friends’ friends’ friends, the effect is presumably bound to keep going out indefinitely — although it’ll become weaker as it does so.

  • Ah but if someone 3 removed from me is 10% happier and they are also 3 removed from you then that makes them 20% happier! So there will be lumps of happiness created like the interference pattern of ripples on a pond hit by multiple rain drops.

    OK – stretching the analogy too far – but it is fun.

    • I’m sure some kind of reinforcing effect actually takes place, which is why some communities of people (some sanghas I’ve experienced) can be extremely positive.

  • Candles, flowers, and incense can also serve as symbols of impermanence: candles and incense burn down, flowers wilt.


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