The Upward Spiral of Happiness: How to Spread the Happiness Contagion

Researchers have recently uncovered an extremely virulent contagion. It’s so contagious that just being in the same neighborhood with someone who has it can infect you. I’m talking, of course, about happiness.

A Harvard study showed that physical proximity is essential for the spread of happiness. If you have a happy friend who lives within half a mile, your odds of becoming happy are increased 42%. Bump the distance up to two miles and your odds of happiness are nearly cut in half, down to 22%. So what happens when you get a group of happy people together in the same room? When harnessed correctly by an institution, the power of happiness can create a limitless upward spiral of positivity and joy.

Obviously, the question is how?

Dr. Ben-Shahar is a Harvard professor and the author of several books on positive psychology. In fact, his course on the science of happiness quickly became the most popular course that Harvard ever offered. Perhaps the most inspiring part of his work is the revelation that happiness can be taught. Happiness is not just something that happens to us – research shows that 40% of our happiness is the result of intentional actions. He highlighted three proven actions to promote happiness in ourselves and, consequently, those around us.


1) Pay attention to what makes you happy

Traditionally, psychologists have focused on the pathology of illness. Indeed, Freud and his contemporaries were truly fascinated by what was wrong with people. It wasn’t until the advent of humanistic psychology in the mid-20th century that the field was ever even remotely concerned with increasing positive emotions rather than decreasing negative ones.

As positive psychology has taken off in the 21st century, we now understand the irony of this mindset; by focusing only on negativity, you see only negativity. However, Dr. Ben-Shahar argues that the opposite is also true. When we focus on well-being and boosting our positive emotions, we feel those feelings more often and become better equipped to build relationships, increase creativity, and foster resilience. “Positive emotions don’t make us blind to life’s hardships,” Dr. Ben-Shahar says, “They are the fuel that enables us to go out and do good in the world.”


2) Ask what’s right, not what’s wrong

This one closely relates to the first piece of advice, but it gets at the idea that the words we use to frame our experience can be more important than the experience itself. For example, if you get a C on a test, you can easily jump to negative conclusions, especially if you’re used to getting A’s and B’s. However, if you use the right language and mindset, you can see this as an opportunity for growth.

What type of studying has helped you do well on tests in the past? How could you leverage those talents to continue to succeed in the future? These are the questions of a person with a growth mindset who is in touch with what’s right about themselves and doesn’t judge or dwell on perceived personal faults. By identifying their own inner goodness and creating a plan of action that hinges on those strengths, they are sowing the seeds of their own happiness in response to a situation that just as easily could have been interpreted as unequivocally negative.


3) Practice gratitude

When talking about happiness, Dr. Ben-Shahar never fails to bring up the importance of appreciating what you have. In fact, he even gets etymological, analyzing the meanings of the word ‘appreciate.’ This word has several meanings, all of which are relevant to positive psychology. It can mean to recognize the full worth of something, to be grateful for something, or to increase in value.

Think about what you’re thankful for. Sometimes it can be hard to truly see how valuable something is, such as your colleague, your friend, your garden, or your student, until it’s gone. Furthermore, by expressing gratitude for these things, they appreciate in value, making you more grateful and establishing an upward spiral of positivity.



The upward spiral of paying attention to strengths and practicing gratitude sounds quite simple, but it’s not easy. Happiness requires discipline, self-awareness, and hard work. But the more we work, the more we have to work with, as our own bank of positivity appreciates in value and spreads to those around us.

With a world that is palpably growing more uncertain and negative, teaching happiness and positivity is more important now than ever before and it starts in our classrooms. If we increase the happiness of students, they increase the happiness of teachers and their families, solidifying an upward spiral that reverberates into the future. Aviva offers a wide range of curriculum that can help you be a part of this change.