Are You Happy With Your Social Network? Part I

March 1, 2009 by Ken Nowack

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family.  Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” 

Jane Howard

It seems intuitive that being around co-workers, friends and family members who are happy should “rub off” on us.  We even call this “emotional contagion.”

New research based on the very well known Franingham Heart studies found that while happiness may spread through a person’s social network of friends, neighbors and family sadness did not1.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, used data from the Framingham Heart Study to recreate a network of 4,739. Fowler and co-author Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School charted friends, partners/spouses and siblings in the social network, and used their self-reported happiness ratings from 1983 to 2003.

Using the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Index (a standard measure of depression), the researchers found that when an individual becomes happy, a friend living within a mile experiences a 25% increased chance of becoming happy. A partner or spouse experiences an 8% increased chance, siblings living within one mile have a 14 % increased chance, and for next door neighbors, 34% (let’s hear it for having a wonderful neighbor).

But, the biggest surprise came with indirect relationships. Again, while an individual becoming happy increases his friend’s chances, a friend of that friend experiences a nearly 10% chance of increased happiness, and a friend of that friend has a 5.6% increased chance (talk about “six degrees of separation”)

Contrary to what your parents might have told you, this research does not support the idea that popularity leads to happiness. People in the center of their social network clusters are the most likely people to become happy, odds that increase to the extent that those surrounding them also have lots of friends.  However, becoming happy doesn’t seem to move a person from the outer circle of their network to the center.

Interestingly, health habits also tend to spread from one’s social network.  Fowler and Christakis have also looked at trends in obesity and smoking using the parts of the Framingham heart study network.

They found that when someone quits, a friend’s likelihood of quitting smoking was 36 percent.  A person’s likelihood of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given time period2.

These findings suggest a new link to explain the fattening of Americans.  Obesity in the US has doubled in the last 25 years.

There is no doubt now that social support moderates health but eating, plain and simple, causes overweight….Be well….
[tags]surveys, Envisia, Envisia Learning, emotions, leadership, emotional contagion, social support, health behaviors, obesity, smoking, happiness, social network, climate, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]

  1. Fowler, J. and Christakis, N. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.  British Medical Journal, 337;a2338, doi:10.1136/bmj.a2338 []
  2. Christakis, N. & Fowler, J. (2007), The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years.  The New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 370-379 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

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