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BMJ Letter

Happiness networks: What about social politics?

Fowler and Christakis use the example of illness as a potential source of unhappiness for patients and those around them.1 I’m glad that they say potential, but my concerns, as described in Bowling Alone,2 begin to mount about this kind of research to find the holy grail of happiness.

Trying to essentialise happiness, 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 may avoid other people with "problems" because some people may automatically be seen as sources of social unhappiness. Indeed, much research on carers of ill people already uses the term burden to describe the ill person’s needs in relation to the carer without understanding their relationship and questioning the use of a value laden term. It is only a small step on with a few assumptions about people being happier associating with happy people, to creating more unhappiness in ill people, especially if, despite all possible care, the (chronic) illness remains. Sainsbury’s final comment, "Don’t drop your unhappy friends yet," unwittingly hits the political nail on the head.3

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 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, who is happy alone.4

Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b292

Dr Glenn Smith, Senior Research Fellow
Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX

Competing interests: none declared.

References

  1. Fowler JH, Christakis NA. Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ 2008;337:a2338. (4th December.) [Abstract] [Full Text] [PDF]
  2. Putnam RD. Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
  3. Sainsbury P. Commentary: Understanding social network analysis. BMJ 2008;337:a1957. (4th December.) [Full Text]
  4. Storr A. Solitude: a return to the self. New York: Free Press, 1988.