When we were little, our friends and social network influenced our choices, thoughts and behaviors. If Dave played basketball then so did Colin. If Marie wore her hair in pigtails, Andrea thought it was cool. When we grow up, we look at our friends and those who construct our social network much differently. We are led to believe who you know can lead you to opportunity and success. The number of names and phone numbers in our Blackberries are supposed to grow, especially in our nation’s capital, where building one’s social network is not only an event, pastime or lecture topic, but a way of life. We’ve all been told that “who you know” can get you in the door to a job, inside information or get you into a sold-out event. But studies say who you know and how well you know them can make a much more remarkable impact on one’s life than having an “in” with backstage security.
In recent years, sociologists, psychologists, scientists and physicians alike have shifted their attention and broadened their focus of study subjects by examining the relationships and characteristics of those closely connected to them. While an individual’s social networks have not unveiled connections resulting in lucrative jobs or insider information, they have instead revealed a profound influence and vital effect over many facets of one’s health and wellness. The characteristics of those who run in a person’s social circle and how closely connected they are to that person have proven to play a factoring role in matters diverse as belt size to coping ability.
So just how much are we influenced by our relationships? Let’s start with behaviors. It may sound rudimentary to assume that if the people you associate with are drinkers, you’ll likely follow suit. After assessing the social networks of 12,000 people from 1971 to 2003 — the subjects of the famous Framingham Heart Study — researchers from Harvard and the University of California, San Diego concluded in the Annals of Internal Medicine last month that not only do those in your social network affect your alcohol consumption, so do those in your social network’s network — this relationship held through three degrees of separation. If the people you surround yourself are heavy drinkers, it is 50 percent more likely that you will also drink heavily. If a friend of a friend is a heavy drinker, you would be 36 percent as likely to be one as well. And if that friend’s friend — the third degree of separation — is a heavy drinker, your chances of drinking heavily increases 15 percent.
It may be easy to enjoy another cocktail among your friends or share ideas of social acceptance when it comes to alcohol consumption, but what about body size? Could obesity spread from one to another just like the tendency to drink within a social circle? Take the people in your life, your friends, significant other, colleagues and family. Look at your body size in comparison to theirs, taking extra note of your closest friends. Do you find any parallels? Researchers from the Harvard/UCSD study found that it may not just be about diet and exercise, but that obesity is spread through relationships. The most statistically significant (and shocking) relationship influences were with close friendships of the same sex. A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if he or she had a close friend who became obese throughout the study. In pairs of people who each named one another as a close friend, the likeliness that both would gain weight if one became obese jumped to 171 percent. It didn’t matter how near or far the friends were from one another geographically, as long as the person being named was a close friend. This correlation has proved to be stronger than genetics and marriage. Between adult siblings, the likeliness that one would become obese after their brother or sister had increased by 40 percent; for spouses they found a 37 percent increased risk.
Don’t get upset just yet, not all relationships increase negative outcome. But if you are unhappy, perhaps you should find a new group of happy friends, hopefully ones with their own happy friends. Analyzing over 50,000 social ties of nearly 5,000 Framingham participants from 1983-2003, researchers concluded a key determinant of a person’s happiness lies in the happiness with whom they are connected. The degree of closeness to one’s friends and family also ascertained the likeliness of happiness in the future. In the study, happiness was found to be dependent on a person’s social connections extending (again) to three degrees of separation. What this means is that your close friends, siblings, spouse and neighbors all can impact your happiness, and if they are happy (and their friends, and their friends’ friends), there is a greater probability that you will also be happy. Luckily, happiness seems to spread much more consistently through a social web then does unhappiness. By mapping out a network of social connections, it was found that happy people are found in clusters, and the more central one is in the network of relationships, the more likely they are to be happy and stay happy in the future.
Need more reasons to embrace friendships? Want to live longer? Keep your friends, make new ones and continue your relationships in your old age. While having a spouse had little impact on survival, a study of 3,000 nurses with breast cancer published in the Journal of Oncology found that women without close friendships were four times as likely to die then women with 10 or more friends. Another study, this time focused on longevity, found that when people aged 70 and above maintained close friendships and social ties, they had a 22 percent higher survival time. Australian researchers in this study also found no correlation between relationships with their children and relatives, just the friendships the subjects maintained.
Maybe it is all about who you know in life that makes a difference when it comes to attaining health and happiness. It’s not just a mind and body connection we need to be aware of. There is a third component, a person’s social ties, which can play a major role in one’s wellness, thus unveiling the mind-body-social network connection. It turns out, in one way or another, we are all influencing one another, spreading cheer or weight gain, and not only is it important to choose friends wisely and rekindle old friendships, it’s never too late to make new friends. It’s also important to remember you are part of larger phenomenon, influencing and leaving your mark in others’ lives.