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UCSD political professor James Fowler is most well-known for his recent research suggesting that happiness is contagious, and not just in one-on-one relationships. If you’re happy, he says, people you’ve never even met — friends of friends of friends — can get a boost.
We last talked to Fowler in 2007. when he’d gained attention from TV”s “The Colbert Report.” I called him last week to chat about the loneliness research, and we ended up talking about contagious gays, “Eleanor Rigby” and being alone in the middle of a crowd.
Your research suggests that the emotions of lonely people spread far and wide. So we should stay far away from lonely people to avoid catching loneliness, right?
We know when your friends become lonely, it increases the chances that you’ll become lonely. But when you cut ties to people, that increases the likelihood that you’ll be lonely too.
The most important thing is to stay connected: if your friend is feeling lonely, you should help them feel connected because their feelings will impact you.
They had a joke on Jay Leno last night about our research: he said they have a study now that says you can catch loneliness from other people. He said, “If they’re alone, then how are they spreading loneliness?”
This is a fundamental misunderstanding about what loneliness means. Everyone who thinks about this for a more than a minute will realize there have been times when they’ve been surrounded by people, but they’ve felt inherently alone.
How can one person’s emotions affect people he or she doesn’t even know? It’s hard to get my head around that.
We were talking here, and you started laughing, and I started laughing. We have this inherent tendency to be infected by the short-term moods of other people.
A person on the street is not an island to himself: he’s constantly having conversations with other people, feeling happy when other people feel happy, and feeling sad when other people feel sad.
If we understand the process as going from person to person, then it makes sense to me that you ought to be able to transmit this from person to person to person.
What else are you working in this area?
We’re interested in the spread of lots of different things. We’re currently investigating the spread of sexual behavior, whether or not different kinds of sexual practices spread from person to person.
Could this tell you whether being gay might be contagious?
We think we could use this method to say something about that, yes.
Going back to loneliness, I’m going to borrow a question from The Beatles: “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
It’s interesting that you mention The Beatles.
We’ve studied the spread of musical taste on Facebook, and we’ve found that the two groups that exhibit the highest amount of spread are The Beatles and The Killers. The Beatles have this song about loneliness, and the song itself appears to spread from person.