Intended for healthcare professionals


Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 05 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2338

Interesting but where's the social politics?

This is an interesting paper, and I can see a lot of hard work went
into it. But like many pieces of statistical research on human social
experience I feel that the authors overreach themselves.

1) Firstly, the authors can not claim that people's happiness
"depends" on the happiness of others. Have they sampled the whole world
and every person and experience of happiness to say this? This is a
generalised and normative statement no matter how statistically systematic
you are that is dangerous to make about social life which I discuss
further below.

2) The definition of happiness is very value laden and too simplistic
which is partly to do with trying to explore human experience using
quantitative measures - i.e. "asking people about the future" and "I felt
that I was just as good as other people" are value laden statements about
life, with these values not explored or discussed fully in the paper or
with the participants.

3) The reference list is too “scientific” and I would like to have
seen more reference to social context. The authors might also find Anthony
Storr's book "Solitude" an interesting counter argument to their assertion
that happiness “depends” on our sociability and social networks and we are
“fundamentally” social beings.

4) The authors use the example of illness (acute/chronic?) as a
potential source of unhappiness for patients and those around them. I'm
glad that the authors use the word "potential" here, but this is where my
concerns begin to mount about this kind of research and this concern
features in "Bowling Alone" that social network/capital classic. If one is
not careful this kind of research of trying to essentialise happiness and
who experiences it and how it is obtained or passed on – these normalising
tendencies - will inevitably lead to prejudice and assumptions - in this
case people avoiding other people with "problems" as some people may
automatically be seen as sources of social unhappiness. Indeed, much
research on carers of ill people, for example, already uses the term
“burden” unquestionably to describe the ill persons needs on the lives of
their carer without understanding that relationship and questioning the
use of this value laden term. It is only a small step from there and a few
assumptions about people being happier associating with happy people, to
actually create more unhappiness in ill people and not necessarily less as
the authors suggest, especially if despite all the care in the world, the
(chronic) illness remains. Prof Sainsbury's comment about
”not dropping your friends yet”, although humorously meant, unwittingly
hits the political nail on the head and my main concern with this research
genre of finding the “holy grail” of happiness.

5) The authors should have discussed some of these socio-political
issues and placed their work in these arguments. Research on happiness
would be better if it explored the range of things that make people
“happy” as defined by the people researchers talk to, to produce
conclusions that reflect diversity in the “happiness” experience and
minimise conclusions that normalise. Happiness research that attempts to
find generalisations about happiness will ultimately cause some people to
be unhappy and marginalised and will not challenge inherent assumptions
about what makes people happy, what is happiness, and who is happy in
society or indeed, as Anthony Storr suggests, who is “happy alone!”

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

18 December 2008
Dr G Smith
Senior Research Fellow
Royal Holloway, TW20 0EX