Happiness Is An Emergent Property Of Social Networks

I was twigged by the NY Times to some research on happiness undertaken by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, in which they conclude that an individual’s happiness is strongly influenced by the happiness of friends, and their friends, and so on:

Nicholas A. Christakis and  James Fowler, SOCIAL NETWORKS AND HAPPINESS 

We studied 4,739 people followed from 1983 to 2003 as part of the famous Framingham Heart Study. These individuals were embedded in a larger network of 12,067 people; they had an average of 11 connections to others in the social network (including to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors); and their happiness was assessed every few years using a standard measure.

We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%. For comparison, having an extra $5,000 in income (in 1984 dollars) increased the probability of being happy by about 2%.

Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon.

Or perhaps better said, emotion – at least happiness – is an emergent property of social groups.

The ancient Bantu saying “Through people we become human” plays here. We have such an emphasis on individuality and a near obsession with self-centered emotionality that we downplay or completely disregard the degree and nature of our connectedness to others. So it comes as a sort of smack in the head to hear that the happiness of your roommate or next door neighbor makes you happy: not just happy for them, but happy in and of yourself.

And I was immediately curious to know if the same sort of effects are manifested in online relationships. Christakis and Fowler had demonstrated a steep drop-off in the impact of others’ happiness based on proximity: the farther away the friend, physically, the less the impact of their happiness on you. So perhaps online friends are infinitely far away? Or maybe only the online friends that you also see face-to-face would have an impact?

The authors did some research on Facebook that showed that smiling faces in Facebook are closely connected to others with smiling faces, and so on. The people central to the network – they studied 1700 college students – smiled much more in their photos than people at the periphery. Their conclusion?

Moreover, people who do not smile seem to be located more peripherally in the network. In fact, statistical analysis of the network shows that people who smile tend to have more friends (smiling gets you an average of one extra friend, which is pretty good considering that people only have about six close friends). Not only that, but the statistical analyses confirm that those who smile are measurably more central to the network compared to those who do not smile. That is, if you smile, you are less likely to be on the periphery of the online world.

It thus seems to be the case, online as well as offline, that when you smile, the world smiles with you.

Just like the old Louis Armstrong song, first recorded at the worst days of the Great Depression:

When You’re Smiling
Words & Music by Mark Fisher, Joe Goodwin & Larry Shay, 1928
Recorded by Louis Armstrong, 1929

When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling,

The whole world smiles with you;

When you’re laughing, when you’re laughing,

The sun comes shining through.

But when you’re crying you bring on the rain,

So stop your sighing, be happy again.

Keep on smiling, ‘cause when you’re smiling

The whole world smiles with you.

The whole world smiles with you.

Not to make light of it, the implications are fairly broad.

On a purely tactical level, people wanting to be more central to social networks might moderate their behavior to at least appear to be happy, or, alternatively, the folks who are central (more popular) might be so because they are emulating the behavior of happy people, even when they may not be.

Strategically, this means that the emotional mood of social networks can be modified by the behaviors being telegraphed by the most central participants: since their are followed by many, they influence the emotions of many, and the friends of the many, and so on. It’s not just memes being spread by the influencers, they also spread feelings, as well.

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