Choose Your Friends Carefully

January 17, 2009

A recently published study by Nick Christakis and James Fowler, described in BMJ, a British Medical Journal claims that our own personal happiness is directly related to having happy friends. In this study of some 4700 people over two decades it appears that happiness spreads like a cold virus through a social network with up to 3 degrees of separation. According to the authors, “happiness is contagious” which certainly argues for us to see ourselves in relationship to others, as opposed to seeing ourselves as separate disconnected individuals.

The study also shows that unhappiness spreads through social networks, but it doesn’t seem to have quite the same virulence. Another eyebrow lifting finding is that social networks in the workplace seemed to be vaccinated against the happiness bug. Perhaps that finding is related to the distinctive nature of work relationships. I can’t decide whether I find resistance to the spread of happiness in the workplace as a surprising finding or something I would have expected.

The long-running Framingham Heart Study is the data source. In the same data set the authors found that the likelihood to quit smoking appears to socially spread, as does the propensity for obesity. I guess that puts a premium on thin friends. I personally stumbled across this notion years ago. A regular golfing partner (a clinical psychologist) once accused me of infecting him with my hypochondriacy.

It would be interesting to explore the nature of the narrative patterns in these social networks and how those patterns correlate with the spread of happiness or any other emotion. Would happiness-related narrative show up as some sort of weak signal in a SenseMaker data set? More details are available in the links below.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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