Sunday, September 13, 2009

Can I Catch Happiness from my Twitter Community?

A year ago, Clive Thompson wrote a provocative article in today's NY Times Magazine, Brave New World of Digital Intimacy on the social realities of Twitter and Facebook. This was the article that introduced the term, Ambient Awareness. You may recall how he described the myriad relationships of loose ties that are now possible with the platforms and how we deal with incessant online contact.

Well, Thompson has done it again, a fascinating piece in today’s NY Times Magazine, Is Happiness Catching. The article describes an innovative study by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Some key points in the article:

If you want to be happy, what’s most important is to have lots of friends. The happiest people in Framingham were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren’t necessarily deep ones.

The reason these people were the happiest, is that happiness doesn’t come only from having deep, heart to heart talks. It comes from having daily exposure to many small moments of contagious happiness, When you see others smile, your spirits are repeatedly affected by mirroring their emotional state.

Interesting parallels with Ambient Awareness, don’t you think? If social platforms like Twitter and Facebook enable us to have friendships far in excess of theoretical Dunbar numbers, then wouldn’t those loose tie relationships affect our happiness?

Christakos and Fowler have even determined that each additional happy friend boosts good cheer by 9% and unhappy friends bring someone down by 7%. Uh oh, is this the next generation of the dreaded Twittergrader?

Seriously, it is a fantastic study that looks at the benefits of community on serious health issues like smoking and obesity. Jonah Lehrer has also written about the article in Wired, The Buddy System: How Medical Data Revealed Secret to Health and Happiness. There are some fascinating charts which demonstrate the community effects.

So what do you think? Can your social networks affect your health and happiness?