There’s been a lot of buzz recently about a happiness study. The premise is that happiness is contagious up to three degrees of separation. So if you are my friend and you become happy, I’m more likely to become happy, too. What’s more, my friend Mary is more likely to become happy even if Mary doesn’t know you. And even Mary’s friend John is more likely to become happy – 3 people removed from you, the source of all that happiness.

In addition to studying happiness, the authors have previously studied the impact of social networks on obesity and smoking rates. Apparently obesity has been spreading through social networks, and smoking has been declining. There are some interesting animations charting the progressions on this page.

If these social influences are real, what hopeful news for those of us fighting hunger! It suggests that our attitudes and behaviors can have larger impact than we ever knew. If happiness, obesity, and smoking are trackably influenced by a single person through their chain of friends, why not charitable giving or concern for those who are living in poverty? When I speak passionately and regularly about hunger, perhaps it will influence not only my immediate audience, but, through them, people I’ve never seen or met. And what happens when a whole web of us do it?

There are, of course, people criticizing the happiness study. One of the complaints is that the authors have proven correlation, but not causation. Still, the whole idea feels commonsensical to me. Doesn’t peer pressure work in a similar way? Aren’t we influenced by people we know? Aren’t they influenced by people they know? Why would it not carry through? So right or wrong, I’m going to approach the new year as if I matter more than I thought I did. May 2009 see our individual anti-hunger efforts spread far and wide!

-Nancy Michaelis