Be Careful! Happiness Is Contagious, Transmitted by Contact

Happy family.jpg
Happiness is a clue that someone is flourishing. It's not everything that constitutes flourishing, but it seems to be a necessary condition. Happiness is not restricted to the economic well-being of anyone. Money, as it is said, cannot buy happiness. But it also appears that computer display screens with others' faces and news about them do not bring it either. A study of happiness reported in today's New York Times points to the positive effect caused by the presence of other happy people.

How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all. . . And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood. . . . So says a new study that followed a large group of people for 20 years — happiness is more contagious than previously thought. . . .

“You have to see them and be in physical and temporal proximity,” Dr. Christakis said. Body language and emotional signals must matter, said Professor Fowler, adding, “Everybody thought when they came out with videoconferencing that people would stop flying across the country to have meetings, but that didn’t happen. Part of developing trust with another person is being able to take their hand in yours.”

These findings are important to the development of my book in two ways. First, they show the criticality of interdependence and caring for others in producing being--the foundation of flourishing--rather than having. And, second, they provide evidence for the negative role of technology in intersubjective relationships. The importance of the presence of others in producing happiness is consistent with findings that technological social networks do not result in the richness that face-to-face interchanges do.

For some, it would be unthinkable — certain social suicide. But Gabe Henderson is finding freedom in a recent decision: He canceled his MySpace account. . . No longer enthralled with the world of social networking, the 26-year-old graduate student pulled the plug after realizing that a lot of the online friends he accumulated were really just acquaintances. He's also phasing out his profile on Facebook, a popular social networking site that, like others, allows users to create profiles, swap message and share photos — all with the goal of expanding their circle of online friends.

"The superficial emptiness clouded the excitement I had once felt," Henderson wrote in a column in the student newspaper at Iowa State University, where he studies history. "It seems we have lost, to some degree, that special depth that true friendship entails."

It is exactly that "superficial emptiness" that drives the addiction to consumption that is at the core of unsustainability. it's not just consumption's impact on the environment, but its more insidious effects on the soul. "Having" more things reinforces one's identity as defined and measured by possessions. Social network technologies are really just another thing that displays data about others; it is not the same as others.

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