Before you ask how you can get infected with the happiness bug, you should also know that unhappiness, obesity, and cigarette smoking are contagious as well.
In fact, it seems as if we never left high school. Who you hang out with matters, and the lifestyle they live will greatly impact yours (and vice versa). And it’s not only your close friends but the friends of those friends that matter. Your entire social network impacts your health and happiness.
You may have heard about the Framingham Heart Study, a 40-year-old project to better understand heart disease. The same people have gone through a rigorous physical exam, blood/tissue analysis, and interview every 4 years, which has led to findings that impact the advice you get from your own doctor. For example, this is the study that realized the importance of “good” cholesterol, among other things.
Two social scientists, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, were given access to the interview questions used in the study for a project on how our social connections affect our health. Because the study asks members to list their closest social contacts in order to help find them every 4 years if they move, there is a gold mine of data regarding social relationships. The scientists put together detailed maps about these relationships and the long-term effects on the health and happiness of participants.
The results are fascinating. (You can read an in-depth story from the NY Times on the project here.)
Not only are your primary social connections important, but the connections of those people are as well.
For example, think about quitting smoking. Without the social pressure of close friends and friends of those friends, some people may never feel the need to quit. But because of that social pressure, many restaurants and other public places are now smoke-free. To have a really active social life in most areas you need to be smoke-free.
This is a very simplistic example of the findings of the study, so I hope you will take the time read the NY Times article.
The reason I’m writing about the study is that when you decide to make a big change in your lifestyle, you have to evaluate the kind of people, situations, and attitudes you have in your life.
- If you want to run a marathon, surround yourself with healthy people and situations
- If you want a busier social life, be willing to join new groups, initiate contact with people, and play hostess on occasion
- If you want to save money, take yourself out of situations that trigger spending
One of the more interesting findings in the study is that people with larger social networks tend to be healthier and live longer than those with just one or two really close friends. It seems there is power in numbers.
Remember, these social connections can be powerful in creating a healthier and happier you, but they can also work the other way. Surrounding yourself with negative people (or no people at all) or unhealthy situations and habits can be just as contagious.
Please take the time to read the article. It is a fascinating look at the real-life long-term results of people who live and work just like you and me.
And then think about your own social network and how it fits with your health and lifestyle goals. It certainly has me thinking!