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The Buddy System,” an article in the Oct. 2009 issue of Wired looks at “the infectious power of social networks.” In the middle of recent H1N1 outbreaks, that’s an ominous-sounding phrase, but what the article’s author, Jonah Lehrer, shares instead is the theory that the people in our social networks may have more influence on us than we realize — especially on things like happiness.

albumBack in 2003, researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler began an extensive review of the Framingham Heart Study – but they weren’t looking at vital statistics and cholesterol numbers. Instead, they looked at subjects’ social networks.

Graphically mapping out these networks, they looked at certain characteristics (such as obesity) and behaviors (like quitting smoking) over time. What they discovered is that changes occurred in clusters. For example, as smoking rates dropped between 1971 and 2001, the network patterns showed that people were far more likely to quit if those linked to them had quit.  Quitting didn’t happen evenly or randomly across the network.

And Christakis and Fowler found that while the greatest influence was exerted by friends, there was significant influence among friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends.

While the Framingham data was based on traditional social networks, Christakis and Fowler applied the same thinking to Facebook. They discovered that, while people still maintain about the same number of really close friendships as before, the extended networks of acquaintances still exert influence. Last month, they published their findings in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives.

This is fascinating, but it raises ethical questions too. So we discover that one of the ways to pursue and assure our own happiness is to be connected to positive, happy people. What if we gravitate toward them and away from those who are depressed, ailing, poor, unattractive, introverted, and socially undesirable, and less tech-savvy?  Should we de-friend (or ignore) those grouchy people who complain too much? And as those who are less desirable become more socially isolated and disaffected (and in theory, less happy), then what?

Scott Stosssel, in his NY Times review of Christakis and Fowler’s book, does an excellent job of getting at those questions toward the end of his (mostly positive) review. If you don’t want to read the whole review, you can skip to the last few paragraphs.

What do you think?

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