Thursday, April 8, 2010

We are who we friend

Want to be happy? It might be as easy as surrounding yourself with happy people.

Nicholas Christakis, Professor of Medical Sociology and of Medicine at Harvard University, examined thousands of social connections and found that happy people tend to associate with happy people, while lonely people tend to associate with lonely people.

The effects our friends have on us extend further than that. Smokers and obese people are more likely to group together, affecting each other through their mutual decisions.

In colorful, branched diagrams, Christakis maps out social networks and uses them to examine how we group together. Below for instance is what could be called a web of happiness, showing happy people in yellow, intermediate people in green, and unhappy people in blue, with the other colors indicating different types of social relationships. The different types of people tend to cluster together, as can be seen by the fact that most of the yellow sections group together and most of the blue sections group together - happy goes with happy, unhappy with unhappy.

"Happiness in a Face-to-Face Network in 2000," from Christakis paper "Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis Over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study."

This is the power of social networks, the real life web of connections we make with other people. As much as we consider ourselves to be independent individuals, Christakis's research shows our friends, family, and coworkers influence us more than we realize.

Our behaviors model those around us because the people we associate with affect our expectations of what is normal and we start to unconsciously imitate them. Just like viruses can move from one person to the next, thoughts and feelings can move like an infection through an entire social network.

Those we're closest to influence us the most, and our influence on others wanes as we travel further through our social network. But in our tangled social web, Christakis has found that even people you've never met can affect your life.

Christakis is just one of the ten scientists speaking at Big Ideas for Busy People, a Cambridge Science Festival event where leading researchers give five minute presentations each for a general audience. The title for his presentation is: "Why social networks are like carbon," and while Christakis is keeping quiet now the exact topic, saying "it's going to be a little bit of a secret;" but in a phone interview he made it clear that it'll be based on his current research.

"I want [the audience] to understand that we live our lives embedded in these elaborate and enormous structures that are known as 'social networks' and that these social networks affect everything that we feel, think, or do," Christakis said.

This isn't an ordinary talk for Christakis because of the precise five minute speaking limitation, but he says that doesn't daunt him. He says feels "more entertained than constrained" by it, but it'll be interesting to see how he and the other speakers adapt to this format.

To hear Christakis talk and nine other scientists speak about their ideas, come to Big Ideas for Busy People Friday April 23, 7:30 - 9:30 PM at The Laboratory (Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138)

To read more about Christakis and his research, check out his web site: or his book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. After the Big Ideas event there will also be a reception to speak with the presenters.

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