3 Fun Facts About How Our Friends Lead Us to Love


The weekend! Lots of things. I flirted a little and was flirted with. I sang karaoke! A duet! ("Positively Fourth Street" by Dylan.) In groovy Red Hook, at the unparalleled Hope & Anchor Diner. I never have birthday parties, but I definitely want to have my next one there.

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In real-world news:

A few weeks ago, as you might recall, I mentioned a forthcoming book that cited an interesting study, which found that 7 out of 10 people end up marrying folks they are connected to by three degrees. That book--"Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives"--was just released, and is receiving a fair bit of buzz (including a rave review in yesterday's New York Times). The hype is understandable: The book has all sorts of interesting information about how our friends influence our lives, for better and for worse. I spoke to co-author James Fowler about how our social networks can do all sorts of things--like help us to lose weight, feel happier and find lasting love.


MAURA: Your book indicates that social behavior is "contagious." Does that mean that by hanging out with friends who exercise regularly, eat good food, and generally live in a healthy way--for instance--will increase the likelihood that you will engage in similar behaviors?

JAMES: Yes. In our book we show that lots of things are "socially contagious"--including emotions, healthy behaviors, sexual practices, and even political beliefs.

MAURA: Are habits--like jogging or smoking--more contagious than emotions? I assume so, because it seems harder to "catch" a particular mindset--whether happier or unhappier, more optimistic or pessimistic--from your friends. Is that right?

JAMES: The main difference we find between "catching" on to emotions and behaviors is that emotions depend much more on physical proximity. The closer you live to a happy friend, the more likely you are to become infected by her happiness. In contrast, behaviors seem to spread just as strongly at a distance as they do between people who live close to each other. For example, a friend who lives hundreds of miles away appears to have just as strong an effect on you when it comes to your weight, drinking, and smoking habits as your friend who lives next door because behaviors--or actions--are influenced more by *ideas* and are therefore less dependent on frequent contact.



MAURA: When it comes to the realm of dating and romantic relationships ... what were your most interesting findings?

JAMES: Social networks are extremely powerful when it comes to helping us find Mister or Ms. Right. There's a widespread belief that we'll just bump into our soulmates randomly one day. But in the book, we talk about how extremely unlikely it is for this to happen. Our social networks--our group of friends and acquaintances, and their friends and acquaintances--tend to guide us to the people who are perfect for us. Surprisingly, that often means we end up with people who were originally separated from us by just three degrees: like a friend's roommate's co-worker, for instance.



MAURA: Hmm, interesting! It sounds like I should stop flirting, and just follow my friends around more. ... But yes, in your book, you reference a Chicago study which found that 7 out of 10 people are likely to marry someone they are linked to by only three degrees of separation. That research was done many years ago, and it made me wonder: In the current world--where people now have access to so many different strangers, thanks to online dating--do these statistics hold up?

JAMES: That's an open question. But even in our modern world, it seems most people live in circles of about 150 people--and have 5 or 6 close friends within the larger group. The implication is that our new "hyperconnected" life isn't going to multiply the number of close social contacts that we have always relied on--although it does seem to increase the number of acquaintances we stay in touch with casually. This will make it easier to search our networks for the perfect mate ... but they are fundamentally the same networks we've always had.



MAURA: I'm 30-something and though I dated a few friends of friends in college, it's been a LONG time since I've dated anyone I've met directly through a friend. This is a long way of saying: If, by a certain point, you haven't met people through your friends, should you either try to make new friends or write off the possibility of meeting anyone through them?

JAMES: Everyone's experience will be different, and given that 7-in-10 people find their mates through their social networks, that means 30% will find them OUTSIDE of their social network. So maybe you're part of that 30%. But don't give up on your friends. It's important to remember that through three degrees of connection, our friends link us to hundreds and hundreds of people. Not all of them will be available, but even if just 10% of them are, that's a lot of potential dates! And the people at 3 degrees of separation keep changing all the time because we make new friends, and so do our friends and their friends. Each one of these new connections is a bridge to a whole new set of people.



MAURA: What is the single most important characteristic we should look for in a friend, in terms of influencing our overall levels of happiness? What's the single most important characteristic we should look for in terms of a mate?

JAMES: Those are tough questions -- so many things are important. But I would say that what our work has taught me is that the network itself has unimagined value that we often cannot see--even our friends' friends' friends can affect us! So I would put less stock in choosing this friend or that one. Simply keep in touch with all the friends you have. At the end of the day, the best way to live a healthy and happy life is to tend to our social networks and stay connected.


dear commenters:

yes, Edwinna, i will keep flirting ... Love Paris: i agree with you, about what guys are usually thinking! ... Yumm and Kay: thank you for weighing in. ... and Topaz: i think you're right about the politics of texting. (and i like your advice, lady! keep it coming.)

Amber: hmm, I'm glad you're going on with your life, but maybe it's time to have a calm, tear-free conversation with your dude? Tell him that you are unsatisfied by what's going on, and that if he can't give you a little reassurance that he wants to move forward (and perhaps even a promise that you will see each other more often), you're ready to move on? I find that, for myself, being in situations like that wear on my self-esteem, and that in the long run, I'm happier solo than with someone ambivalent. But I dunno--I'm obviously an idiot when it comes to dating? What do other people think?


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