Connected, written by Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD and James Fowler, PhD, is a wonderfully engaging review of research and anecdotes that illuminate the incredible—and often overlooked—influence that our social networks have on our lives. A social network is any group of individuals who are connected to other individuals by a specific set of connections or ties across which influence or knowledge may be transmitted. Don’t worry. Much of the first chapter is dedicated to defining social networks and their properties.
Social networking websites such as Facebook are examples of social networks because people have “friends” or “connections” with whom they can share information (later chapters discuss these sites specifically). A corporate organizational chart and a diagram of mutual friends within a kindergarten class are other models of social networks. We form these networks because they help us manage our complex social world. Our social networks have extraordinary influence because we are not only affected by the people to whom we are directly connected, but also by the other people to whom our connections are connected.
Christakis and Fowler lay out five important rules of social networks that are threaded throughout the book. They are:
RULES OF NETWORKS
Rule 1: We shape our network.
Rule 2: Our network shapes us.
Rule 3: Our friends affect us.
Rule 4: Our friends’ friends’ friends affect us.
Rule 5: The network has a life of its own.
Personally, I found rule number 4 to be the most unique and compelling. The authors highlight a number of research findings showing that the behaviors of people three degrees of separation away in a network (i.e. your friends’ friends’ friends) have an affect on your behavior. They call this the Three Degrees of Influence Rule.
The effects of these five rules are discussed in content-focused chapters that tackle a myriad of network-relevant topics from politics and money to hysteria epidemics, meeting Mr. (or Ms.) Right, and World of Warcraft. By the end of the book, I struggled to find an aspect of my daily life that wasn’t related to my social networks.
RELATION TO POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
Connected is not, strictly speaking, a book solely about positive psychology topics, as the authors give fair play to both the positive and negative effects our social networks have on us. That said, I do highly recommend it as an addition to your positive psychology bookshelf for its valuable insights into the social aspects of emotional well-being, love, performance, and meaning (one chapter boasts the inspiring title “When You Smile, The World Smiles With You”).
The Three Degrees of Influence Rule has interesting implications on happiness. Being connected to a happy friend makes you 15 percent more likely to be happy yourself, while being connected at three degrees of separation makes you 6 percent more likely. Other research shows that an extra $10,000 makes people 2 percent more likely to be happy. So our friends’ friends’ friends have more impact on our well-being than a sizable amount of money.
The authors show similar findings that an individual’s obesity or charitable giving is influenced by the behavior of people three degrees away. I find the inverse of these findings inspiring. If you begin increasing your fitness level by working out and eating well, not only are you helping yourself, but you may also be positively influencing a lot of people in your network up to three degrees away.
One great asset of the book is its presentation of examples that might readily lead to real-world change. For instance, a person’s position within a network has significance, as it denotes how connected or disconnected he is. While it may seem obvious, the authors show that loneliness correlates highly with people at the edge of network models. By directly targeting social engagement interventions at the people at a network’s outskirts, the deleterious effects of loneliness might be limited efficiently.
Inspiring stories abound. The book starts with a story about a recipient of an organ donation that saved his life who subsequently encouraged his children to sign up as organ donors. One of his sons was later killed in an accident and his organ donations helped eight other people in need. Social networks are the very mechanisms that allow people to find rare things, like organs, they need. In commentary on the Internet and the effects of large-scale networks, the authors point out that people are now able to find support groups and interest groups for uncommon topics, including organ transplants, which might have left them isolated in the past. And in the case of the organ donation recipient, good deeds can be spread through our networks helping even more people.
US AT OUR BEST
Early in the book the authors comment on the six degrees of separation in relation to their Three Degrees rule: “If we are connected to everyone else by six degrees and we can influence them up to three degrees, then one way to think about ourselves is that each of us can reach about halfway to everyone else on the planet.”
In the best cases, our social connections represent us at our best, choosing meaningful bonds and loyalty over selfish alternatives. Christakis and Fowler tell the story of the 2001 season of the reality television show Survivor. As the season wound down, three contestants remained: Colby, Keith, and Tina. Colby, a young Texan, had just won immunity for the week and was allowed to decide who would face him in the final tribal meeting to decide the winner of the million dollar prize. All the previously banished contestants would be present and would vote for the winner. Keith, a chef from Detroit, had played the game a bit arrogantly and alienated several other players along the way. Tina, a nurse from Tennessee, on the other hand, was well liked by many of the other contestants. It seemed obvious that Colby should choose to face Keith, since the other contestants didn’t like him much and would declare Colby the winner. Instead, Colby chose Tina. Many viewers questioned Colby’s choice. During the episode in which the votes were cast, footage from the entire season played in which it became clear that Colby and Tina had both lasted so long due to a bond and alliance they had formed early on. Colby, it appeared, valued the connection and friendship over self-interest. Tina, as expected, won the million dollar prize.
Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Little Brown and Company.