Talk about the power of friendship! Your pals' happiness is contagious—and it may be an easy cure for depression

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Corbis Images

Worried that hanging out with your Debby Downer friend is going to ruin your mood? New research out of England is here to save your friendship: Depression is not contagious-but happiness is, says a cheerful new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Busting stereotypes about depression and showing the power of friendship, researchers found that one of the most effective cures for the mental illness may be no farther away than the contact list in your phone. (Plus, you gain these 12 Ways Your Best Friend Boosts Your Health.)

To examine how friends' moods influence the other, scientists from the Universities of Manchester and Warwick studied 2,000 U.S. high school students, using computer models to track their moods. The researchers found that contrary to popular belief, depressed moods don't spread from one person to another. And to pile on the uplifting findings, they also found that happy moods in fact do.

The fact that you can cheer up a friend who is down isn't so surprising, said study author Thomas House, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in applied mathematics from the University of Manchester, in a press release. "We know social factors-for example living alone or having experienced abuse in childhood-influence whether someone becomes depressed. We also know that social support is important for recovery from depression, for example having people to talk to," he explained. (Learn more about Your Brain On: Depression.)

And the effect of a caring friend on one's depression was very significant. Whereas previous research has found that meds only help about one third of depressed people, this study found a "cure rate" of 50 percent among depressed people with strong social support. This effect is huge, House says, not to mention that a strong social network is a cheap treatment option.

This isn't just good news for Debbie Downers, but also for the people who love them. Not only do you not have to worry about "catching" depression from a friend, but spending time with a them-or any kind of friend for that matter-can benefit you mentally and physically as well. A 2013 study conducted by United Health Group found that 76 percent of U.S. adults who spend time helping others reported that doing so has made them feel physically healthier, and 78 percent had lower levels of stress than adults who do not make an effort to serve others. And a study published by the American Psychological Association found that those who go out of their way to help others on a regular basis have less risk of depression and live longer. (Ever wonder Why Is It So Hard to Make Friends as an Adult? We've got tips to help! )

So the next time you notice a friend singing "I'm just a little black rain cloud," reach out to them-soon you'll both be whistling a happy tune.


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