An old song that I never liked claims that “Happiness runs in a circular motion.” Not so, according to Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard University. He and James Fowler of the University of California recently published an article in the British medical journal BMJ showing that happiness doesn’t run in circles — it spreads like a virus.

The study used data from the long-running Framington Heart Study to track 4739 individuals followed from 1983 to 2003. Participants in the study fill out periodic surveys, including a number of questions that can be associated with happiness. When researchers looked for correlations between the general happiness of participants and responses of others in their social networks, they discovered that happiness spreads not only among family and friends, but even to friends of friends, and to friends’ friends’ friends (say that three times fast for a bonus smile).

In short, it seems, the more happy people you know and associate with, the more likely you are to share their positive emotions.

The idea that our emotions are impacted by those around us comes as no great revelation — the surprising thing is the researchers’ conclusion that it extends even to third degree relationships — to friends of friends of friends.

I have always suspected that one reason some churches are more appealing than others is because they include a number of happy people, beginning with the pastor and running through the congregation. Church members may not know everyone in the congregation personally, but they are linked in a variety of ways to the others who gather for worship with weekly enthusiasm.

The new frontier of social networking, of course, is through Internet interfaces like FaceBook and MySpace. I set up a FaceBook account, for example, mainly to keep up with student friends from our church and from school. Though I don’t actively tend the account and rarely “post my status,” I’ve been “friended” by 242 people, some of whom I know personally, others only by extension. When the number 57 rolled up on my biological odometer this morning, I had received several dozen “Happy Birthday” messages from FaceBook folk that I rarely see — and they really did add some happiness to my day.

We’re getting well into the season of good cheer — why not spread some around?

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