Happiness is contagious: Having mentally healthy friends can cure depression, Manchester Uni study reveals

It appears happiness is actually contagious as having mentally healthy friends can help someone recover from depression, according to new research by the University of Manchester.

Not only can being surrounded by mentally well people help those suffering depression but it can also prevent the onset on mental illness altogether, the study shows.

Dr Thomas House, senior lecturer in applied mathematics from the university and one of the authors, said this research creates the possibility for social intervention as a means of treatment.

He said: “We know social factors, for example living alone or having experienced abuse in childhood, influences whether someone becomes depressed.

“We also know that social support is important for recovery from depression, for example having people to talk to.

“Our study is slightly different as it looks at the effect of being friends with people on whether you are likely to develop or recover from being depressed.

“This was a big effect that we have seen here. It could be that having a stronger social network is an effective way to treat depression.

“More work needs to be done but it may be that we could significantly reduce the burden of depression through cheap, low-risk social interventions.”

Crucially the study showed that having depressed friends does not make you more likely to become depressed – so healthy moods spread through social networks but depression does not.

This is important as there is stigma attached to being depressed.

But the results indicate that being friends with someone who is depressed does not put you at any risk of becoming depressed yourself and it is likely to help the depressed person recover.

Academics from the Universities of Manchester and Warwick collaborated on the study, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B today.

They looked at more than 2,000 teens in a network of US high school students to see how their moods influence each other.

The spread of mood was measured using similar methods to those used to track the spread of infectious diseases.

University of Warwick social science expert Professor Frances Griffiths and applied Mathematician Edward Hill collaborated on the study.

Mr Hill said: “We’ve ensured that the method we used was not confounded by homophily – that’s the tendency for people to be friends with others like themselves. This would have affected our research.

“For example if many adolescents drink a lot of alcohol and their friends drink a lot too it may be that alcoholic drink causes depression among the young people rather than who they are friends with.”

In studying this network of teens the team found that while depression does not ‘spread’, having enough friends with healthy mood can halve the probability of developing, or double the probability of recovering from, depression over a 6-12 month period. 

In the context of depression, this is a very large impact.

These results suggest that promotion of any friendship between teenagers can reduce depression since having depressed friends does not put them at risk, but having healthy friends is both protective and curative.

Dr House added: “As a society, if we enable friendships to develop among adolescents – for example providing youth clubs – each adolescent is more likely to have enough friends with healthy mood to have a protective effect. This would reduce the prevalence of depression.”

Image courtesy of Lea Besson, with thanks.

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