According to recent research, pain can spread among mice by way of smell, suggesting physical pain — at least among animals — can develop as a result of social cues alone. In other words, pain may actually be contagious.1
While researchers are not suggesting the same is happening among humans just yet, the discovery has significant implications for scientists working on addiction withdrawal (which tends to lower pain tolerance) and various drugs, especially pain relieving medications. As reported by STAT News:2
Researchers are now wondering whether past studies might have overlooked some mice’s pain because their roommates — with which they were being compared — had taken on their level of sensitivity.
That could have influenced research on everything from drug withdrawal to painkillers.
“This is something that most — if not all — researchers are not taking into account”, said Loren Martin [Ph.D.], a pain researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga who was not involved in the new study…
The implications don’t just apply to lab mice. If the same is true of humans — a big if — then pain doctors may want to talk not just to their patients, but to their families and roommates, too. “If you are living with a chronic pain patient, what’s the impact on you?” asked Martin.
Emotions and Social Cues May Influence Your Experience of Pain
Robert Kerns, Ph.D., a pain researcher at Yale and former national director of pain management for the Department of Veterans Affairs, notes the study does add substance to the already widely accepted idea that emotions and social factors can contribute to your experience of pain. According to Kerns:
It’s problematic to say that somebody’s pain is not real, or it’s psychological, just because we haven’t developed the technology to uncover or understand the biological contributors.
It’s critically important for the clinician … to show respect for their experience of pain, and to acknowledge the limits of biomedical science.
Also, as reported by Prevent Disease:3
“We don’t know if smell is involved in humans, but there have been experiments clearly showing that humans are sensitive to, and change behavior, in response to smells they don’t consciously perceive,” says [co-author and team leader Andrey] Ryabinin [Ph.D], “But obviously, vision is incredibly important in humans, so we see a chronic pain patient grimace and this immediately triggers a response in us.”
The study has potential implications for people who live with chronic pain patients, as they could be at risk themselves of developing chronic pain conditions, he says.
“It’s all related to the functional significance of being sensitive to the states of others,” says Frans de Waal [Ph.D.] at Emory University in Atlanta, who studies aspects of empathy. Being in tune with the situation of others is highly valuable for adapting and reacting to new situations, he adds.
A Most Welcome Contagion: Happiness
The idea of pain being somehow contagious among humans is an intriguing idea, made even more so by the fact that researchers have already concluded that happiness spreads much like a contagion among people.4 As noted by one happiness researcher, emotions such as happiness “can pulse through social networks,” spreading from person to person.
One study revealed that living within a mile of a happy person increases your chances of becoming happy by 25 percent, and this effect may persist for as long as a year. If Pollyanna happens to be your next-door neighbor, your chances of happiness increases by as much as 34 percent.5,6
The contagion of happiness also spreads outward, of course, to spouses and friends of those who have the original interaction with a happy person.
Remarkably, the happiness of a friend-of-a-friend was found to have a stronger influence on your level of happiness than receiving a $5,000 raise! As noted by co-author Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard University:
You would think that your emotional state would depend on your own choices and actions and experience. But it also depends on the choices and actions and experiences of other people, including people to whom you are not directly connected. Happiness is contagious.
What Is Happiness?
The knowledge that happiness is contagious should be an inspiration to openly share as much of it as possible. Granted, views about what happiness actually IS varies. As noted by Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry:7
We can view happiness in at least three ways — as a hedonic state, as a cognitive state or as a general life philosophy. Happiness, then, can refer to a way of thinking, such as being optimistic; a way of feeling joy, pleasure, relief or gratitude; or simply a way of being.
Of the many strategies investigated for their potential to spark happiness, gratitude is one top contender. Physical beauty and money, for example, have only a limited influence on a person’s level of happiness. As noted by Harvard:
In the end, a sense of gratitude for what we have may be what heartens us: Classic studies that compared the emotional well–being of lottery winners, paraplegics and quadriplegics found all three groups had similar levels of current happiness, suggesting that once the initial windfall or trauma fades, we adapt to change and return to our original hedonic setpoint.
Having strong, healthy relationships with others is another, and perhaps the most important, factor for happiness. One lengthy study found that a person’s capacity for loving relationships was in fact the only factor that could predict life satisfaction in older men.8
Happiness Boosts Health
Researchers have also shown that happiness has distinct epigenetic influence on your biology, lowering inflammatory gene expression and strengthening antiviral and antibody responses, for example.9 So, in essence, by spreading happiness and joy, you’re by default also spreading improved health.
Interestingly, while unhappiness has also been shown to spread among people, the “infectiousness” of happiness is actually far stronger than that of unhappiness — a finding that offers food for thought if you’re in contact with someone who’s in pain. That said, pessimism can have a significant impact on your own health. One study found that having a pessimistic attitude may shave more than 14 years off the average lifespan, increasing your risk of dying before the age of 65 by as much as 25 percent.10,11
Gratitude has also been shown to deliver a long list of beneficial health effects, including improved ability to cope with stress, reduced anxiety, improved sleep12 and better heart health.13 Studies have also shown that gratitude can produce measurable effects on a number of systems in your body, including but not limited to:
- Mood neurotransmitters (serotonin and norepinephrine), as well as cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine)
- Reproductive hormones (testosterone)
- Social bonding hormones (oxytocin)
- Blood pressure and cardiac and EEG rhythms
- Blood sugar
Habits That Promote Happiness
While happiness may seem elusive at times, you can in fact improve your odds of feeling happy, joyful and content. Indeed, consistently happy people tend to have habits that set them apart from their sad and stressed-out peers, such as letting go of grudges, treating people with kindness, dreaming big, not sweating the small stuff and much more. The following list includes “prescriptions” from psychologists that are known to boost your happiness level.14
Make happiness your goal
The first step toward greater happiness is to choose it. You need to believe that happiness is possible, and that you deserve it. (Hint: You do. Everyone does!) Research shows that the mere INTENTION to become happier actually makes a big difference.15
Identify that which makes you happy
If it’s been awhile since you’ve felt truly happy (that carefree joyous state you probably had as a child), you may have forgotten what it is that gets you there. Take time to reflect on what gives you joy (and not just the obvious, like your family, but also little things, hobbies and interests).
Make happiness a priority
If you have a free hour, do you spend it doing something fun? Or do you spend it catching up on housework, tackling an extra work project, or otherwise working? The latter is a “minor form of insanity,” according to happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener, Ph.D.16
It certainly will not help you get happier. To break free of this trap, make a point to schedule your weeks around events (or ordinary activities) that make you feel happy and alive.
Savor pleasant moments
People who take the time to savor pleasant moments report higher levels of happiness, regardless of where the day takes them.17 If you don’t already do this, keeping a daily diary of pleasant moments and whether or not you truly savored them, might help.
You might be surprised at how much happiness is to be had in your everyday life. Try appreciating the scent of your coffee, relishing in the feeling of your soft bed or enjoying the sunrise before you start your day.
Ditch unnecessary and joyless distractions
There’s only so much time in a day, so be sure to protect your attention and time from unnecessary and unproductive distractions. This includes texts, tweets and emails, which take you away from the true pleasures in life. If necessary, turn off social media completely.
Think keeping tabs on your Facebook friends equates to happiness? Think again. Research suggests the more time people spend on Facebook, the more their moment-to-moment happiness declines and the less satisfied with life they become.18
Let every thought be a positive thought
Simply thinking about something positive, and smiling as a result, can make you happier and more upbeat. (Simply fake smiling is actually linked to worsened mood.) A genuine smile includes the facial muscles around your eyes, and can actually prompt brain changes linked to improved mood.
Prioritize experiences over things
Research suggests experiences make us happier than possessions; the “newness” of possessions wears off, as does the joy they bring you, but experiences improve your sense of vitality and “being alive,” both during the experience and when you reflect back on it.
Have a back-up plan for bad days
When you’re having a bad day and your mood is sinking, have a plan in place to lift it back up. This could be calling a close friend, watching a comedy or going out for a jog — whatever works best for you
Identify your sense of purpose
Happiness isn’t about pleasure alone; it’s also about having a sense of purpose. The term “eudaimonic well-being” originated with Aristotle, and describes the form of happiness that comes from activities that bring you a greater sense of purpose, life meaning or self-actualization. This could be your career, or it could be gleaned from volunteering or even taking a cooking class.
Socialize — Even with strangers
Having meaningful social relationships is important for happiness, but even people who engage in “social snacking” report greater happiness. Social snacking describes the little ways you connect with others, including strangers, on a daily basis.
In general, the more you mingle and chat with the people around you, the more cheerful and brighter your mood is likely to be. To learn more about the benefits of striking up casual conversations wherever you happen to be, see my previous article, “How to Talk to Strangers.”
Taking time away from the daily grind is important for helping you recharge. And while even a weekend getaway can give you a boost, a longer trip is better to help you create meaningful memories. These memories can be tapped into later to help boost your happiness. Experts recommend a two-week vacation, ideally, even if it’s to a locale close to home.
Spend more time outdoors
Exposure to bright outdoor light is crucial for a positive mood, in part because regular exposure to sunlight will helps to enhance your mood and energy through the release of endorphins.19 Getting sun exposure outdoors will also help you optimize your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency has long been associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as well as more chronic depression.
When people make a point to conduct three to five acts of kindness a week, something magical happens. They become happier. Simple kind acts — a compliment, letting someone ahead of you in line, paying for someone’s coffee — are contagious and tend to make all of those involved feel good.
Video: Researchers Find Mice Can Feel Each Other’s Pain
About the author:
Born and raised in the inner city of Chicago, IL, Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician trained in both traditional and natural medicine. Board-certified in family medicine, Dr. Mercola served as the chairman of the family medicine department at St. Alexius Medical Center for five years, and in 2012 was granted fellowship status by the American College of Nutrition (ACN).
While in practice in the late 80s, Dr. Mercola realized the drugs he was prescribing to chronically ill patients were not working. By the early 90s, he began exploring the world of natural medicine, and soon changed the way he practiced medicine.
In 1997 Dr. Mercola founded Mercola.com, which is now routinely among the top 10 health sites on the internet. His passion is to transform the traditional medical paradigm in the United States. “The existing medical establishment is responsible for killing and permanently injuring millions of Americans… You want practical health solutions without the hype, and that’s what I offer.”
- 1 Science Advances October 19, 2016; 2(10): e1600855
- 2 STAT News October 19, 2016
- 3 Prevent Disease October 19, 2016
- 4, 7, 8 Harvard, The Contagion of Happiness
- 5 NPR December 5, 2008
- 6 Washington Post December 5, 2008
- 9 Medical News Today August 2013
- 10 Mayo Clinic Proceedings 2000 Feb;75(2):133-4
- 11 Wikipedia, Global Life Expectancy
- 12 Psychology Today November 9, 2011
- 13 American Journal of Cardiology 1995 Nov 15;76(14):1089-93
- 14, 16 TIME September 28, 2014
- 15 The Journal of Positive Psychology 2013; 8(1): 23-33
- 17 The Journal of Positive Psychology May 2012; 7(3): 176-187
- 18 PLoS ONE August 14, 2013; 8(8): e69841
- 19 DermatoEndocrinology April/May/June 2012; 4(2): 109-117