Dark moods, bad news and catching colds and flu: It turns out that moods and behaviors (like eating, drinking and smoking) can "infect" social networks to a much greater degree than psychologists have previously imagined. Harvard medical sociologist Chris Christakis working with data from the Framingham Heart Study (which has been collecting health data of members of a town in Massachusetts since 1948) recently found that if a good friend who lives within a couple of miles of you suddenly becomes happy, your chance of becoming happy skyrockets by more than 60%. Perhaps even more surprising was Christakis' finding that a person's chance of becoming obese increased by 57% if one of their friends' became obese! And get this, his research found obesity in a sibling had less impact than a friend's unfortunate turn toward corpulence (sibling obesity only raised the chance of the same by 40% and an obese spouse had even less impact, increasing the risk just 37%).

Christakis' and other's research strongly point to friendship as the key to power of an emotional contagion. This is to say that in a month when people are prone to getting sick, feeling down and gaining weight, it would be wise to seek out the company of friends who are bucking the trend and feeling pretty good (by leading healthy lives)-even if you continue to be a good friend to those who are experiencing trouble.

This new spate of research from sociologists and others nicely dovetails with the idea of interconnectedness, which is at the heart of my views on integrative medicine. The basic concept is that you can use the energy of other people and leverage the interconnected nature of the human spirit to increase your energy and your ability to heal and stay well. This is one of six aspects of health and healing discussed in my book (which includes my 21 day plan for energy and weight loss), The Source (Free Press, 2008):

In Chapter 6 I explain how the influence of others may work: "Where most of us see empty space separating one living thing from another, physicists have shown all these empty spaces to be filled with energy that allows for continuous sharing of energy and information across space...This very real energetic web tying together all matter allows for a cause and effect relationship between consciousness (the energy of thought) and healing (the returning of physical processes to normal). The transformative power of our own thoughts and intentions and of the thoughts and intentions of others involves an energetic process that transcends space."

Happiness and health (and their opposite states) are infectious. And while the realities of the struggle of life bring highs and lows to everyone, it's important to be aware of how other people, and most especially your friends, can have very real, subconscious effects on your moods and even your physical health. If you want to lose weight this month join a running club and make friends with other runners. If you want to be happier, you've got to spend at least some time around happy people. It turns out that even the simple act of seeing someone smile is likely to make you smile (scientists call this empathetic mimicry). I for one, after reading the latest research, am going to try to be a source of happiness for others throughout my day in this month and time of gloom. You should try it too!

About the Author

Woodson Merrell

Woodson Merrell, M.D., is an integrative physician based in Manhattan.

You are reading

The Source of Healing

What Can Pose a Greater Cancer Risk than Smoking?

Deeply troubling evidence on the dangers of sleeping pills.

The Long Lasting Effects of Negative Information

Just one occasion of negative information can induce long-lasting effects.