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Thank you, John Sterling

Pollyanna or Typhoid Mary

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

This time of year, colds and viruses spread rapidly from one person to another.  Anti-bacterial gel is a mainstay in the battle to stop the spread of germs and viruses.  Bottles of this stuff can be found in gyms, school, hospitals, cars, workplaces and mothers’ purses.  Those most concerned about the transmission of germs can be seen running around with bottles of Lysol spraying everything that does not move.


Often we view the spread of items as bad, but just consider the impact that could be had if, instead of spreading colds, we could spread happiness? 

According to the Gallup-Heathways Well-Being index released Jan. 8, 42 percent of Americans “experienced a lot of happiness and enjoyment without a lot of stress and worry,” while 13 percent of Americans said “they experienced daily worry and stress far outweighing their happiness and enjoyment.”  We are a group that could use a bit more happiness.

These statistics naturally lead to the questions: what are the causes of happiness and how can we make changes in our own lives to increase our own happiness and, potentially, the happiness of others?

Happiness is an elusive emotion, experienced at the individual level and caused by various factors.  Some might find happiness in reading a good book, while others might experience happiness in putting together Legos to create a Star Wars ship.  What influences well-being? According to a November 17, 2008 Gallup report, relationships and financial security affect our feelings of being well.

Gallup asked individuals to report feelings of financial security and interpersonal security.   Those who reported security in both areas also reported the highest scores of well-being.  Those who reported being financially secure but not interpersonally secure scored higher in well-being than did those who reported being interpersonally secure but not financially secure.  This might lead us to conclude that financial security affects us more than personal relationships do.  However, when subjects were asked about recent experiences that would indicate well-being (smiling and laughing the day before), they said that secure interpersonal relationships were more important and more influential. 


The report noted, “money alone may buy life satisfaction, but it does not seem to buy daily happiness.”  That, according to Gallup, means “people's overall assessment of life satisfaction, or ‘evaluative’ well-being, is strongly linked to income. In contrast, ‘experienced’ well-being, which has to do with emotions rather than overall evaluations, is more strongly linked to interpersonal variables -- such as the number of hours each day people spend socializing.”

In fact, the amount of time spent socializing each day directly affects reports of happiness, with six to seven hours considered optimal.

In “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network,” (BMJ, January 8, 2009, James H Fowler, associate professor, department of political science, University of California, San Diego, Nicholas A Christakis, professor Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School and Department of Sociology) the authors conclude that “happy people tend to be located in the center of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people.” They also concluded “changes in happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large-scale structure in the network, giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals.”

The study used 20 years of data from the Framingham Heart Study, which included 4,739 people.  Relationships (family, friends and physical location) were mapped from the data to determine the social network of the participants.  Measures of happiness were based on the results of questions asked from 1983 – 2003, and reflected feelings of happiness and hopefulness, and their change over time. 


The study did not determine how or why happiness spread (mimicking laughter and smiles, sharing of good fortune or emotional contagion).  But it did conclude that happiness spreads up to three degrees of separation.

Pollyanna, the orphan heroine of the 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter, spread cheer through the New England village where she moves by playing the “glad game,” finding something good in every situation.  While the name Pollyanna has come to mean to some the naïve belief that all is fine, the author Porter noted in an interview, "People have thought that Pollyanna chirped that she was 'glad' at everything. . . I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought that it is far better to 'greet the unknown with a cheer.'"

In these winter months, both in terms of weather and economic outlook, what might this mean to those of us who squirt our hands dozens of time a day with antibacterial gel trying to avoid the spread of colds and viruses in the winter months?  Maybe we should spend as much time, effort and attention being happy and spreading happiness to others.

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