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The Power of Social Networks

January 23, 2009

Following up on my earlier 'Choose your Friends' blog there were a few comments which speculated that the study’s conclusion might be explained by some sort of self-selection process. I think that one of the interesting points of the study is that Christakis and Fowler explained it as better understood as a network phenomenon. Fowler goes so far as to say, “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket”. I’ve attached a snippet from the abstract and conclusion.

Taken from the "Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study", James H Fowler, Associate Professor, Nicholas A Christakis, Professor

Results: Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals. A friend who lives within a mile (about 1.6 km) and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25% (95% confidence interval 1% to 57%). Similar effects are seen in co-resident spouses (8%, 0.2% to 16%), siblings who live within a mile (14%, 1% to 28%), and next door neighbors (34%, 7% to 70%). Effects are not seen between coworkers. The effect decays with time and with geographical separation.

Conclusions: People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.

It would be interesting to see if the spread of trust in a social network behaved in a manner similar to happiness. Although the spread of happiness is not seen in co-workers according to the study, we know that social network stimulation is an effective CE tool to breakdown barriers, cross-pollinate teams and stimulate innovation within organization. It seems to me the study demonstrates the power of social networks to operate at subtle levels (Obama certainly put social networks to work). More research is warranted on the social transmission of emotions, particularly within organizations--where many of us spend most of our waking hours.

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