I recently finished the audiobook Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler. As the name implies, the professors (Christakis a professor of medicine, sociology, and health care policy at Harvard and Fowler a professor of political science at UC San Diego) examine the power of social networks to influence in all walks of life.
The authors readily acknowledge the obvious – that social relationships have a great influence on our lives across just about any area we can think of (e.g., religion, political opinions, our diet and weight, whether we start or stop smoking, who we date and marry, our happiness). The authors go into detail why and how this occurs. Using complex mathematical models (that they thankfully go into) they have even calculated the degree to which we influence one another in particular ways.
You’ve heard of “Six Degrees of Separation”…or the counterpart “Six Degrees of Kevin Beacon”? It is the idea that every person on earth is connected with every other person on earth by six degrees or less…or that every actor can be connected to Kevin Beacon in six degrees or less.
Well, it turns out there is truth to this idea. Perhaps more importantly, Christakis and Fowler are able to demonstrate that our behaviors and emotions do not occur in isolation. They are connected to our social networks. Thus, we influence others and influence others within this social networks to…get this…3 degrees. That is, my happiness does not only affect my friends’ happiness (no surprise there), but it affects my friends’ friends ‘ happiness (wow!), AND my friends’ friends’ friends’ happiness (AMAZING!).
Now, the book is wonderful but a little hard to get through…it is fairly dense with information. So, if you like science and fascinating facts on this type of topic, you will probably love this book. For the layperson, however, it might be a bit of a slow read.
Although I enjoyed the book, something that really struck me, given my therapy practice, is the idea of how much influence we have upon others. Sometimes I meet with clients who are experiencing feelings of depression who have come to believe that they don’t really matter. This very belief then magnifies these feelings of depression. For some, it can be at the very root of the depression itself.
But is it true? Is there evidence that we DO matter? The findings elucidated in this book answer that with a resounding, “YES!” Our thoughts, behavior, and feelings affect many people…even to three degrees…because we are interconnected within vast social networks. We are not an island.
Now, a person experiencing depression might think, “Great! My depression is making others depressed as well…up to three degrees?! Yikes!” First, we influence others, we don’t control them. Our happiness, smoking habits influence others’ behavior…it does not dictate others’ behavior and moods. Second, the fact remains that if we affect others through such a network, we matter! This directly contradicts the belief that some hold that they don’t matter. We are important, even if we can’t always directly see it. The influence is there.
Now, since we have established we do matter, it is up to us to decide what kind of influence we want to have on others. You can find many other resources within this website and elsewhere that can help you improve your life in positive ways. Know that, when you do this, others benefit as well. You matter…we all do.