This is what I love about Facebook: getting little tidbits of news each day from a wide collection of friends, family, and people I kind of remember from high school. And that, according to research by social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, could be a key factor in my happiness.
Christakis and Fowler’s study used data from the Framingham Heart Study, which has tracked data on the same 15,000 people for over 50 years. (Clive Thompson’s article in The New York Times Magazine this Sunday tells the whole story.) The short version is that their research supports the idea that obesity, drinking, smoking and even happiness are contagious, and can spread through three degrees of influence. In other words, you affect not only your friends, but your friends’ friends’ friends.
“If you want to be happy, what’s most important is to have lots of friends,” Thompson reports. “Historically, we have often thought that having a small cluster of tight, long-term friends is crucial to being happy. But Christakis and Fowler found that 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, the duo theorize, is that happiness doesn’t come only from having deep, heart-to-heart talks. It also comes from having daily exposure to many small moments of contagious happiness.”
This is exactly what you get on Facebook. I relish knowing that my dear friend Janneke is “soaking in the hot tube with a glass of wine after a good workout,” and that my sister Amanda has “located the girls’ red slider turtle that escaped from the tank and has been missing all day.” But it’s not just the easy, day-to-day connections with those you’re closest to. It’s also knowing that my client Betsy and her daughter Julia “just made a blueberry-peach pie,” and that a photographer friend who grew up in South Georgia is spending a Saturday “with his 97-year-old grandfather, who’s considering the purchase of a new tractor.” It makes me glad to see that my high school classmate Rebekah is “thankful for many things about my 88 yr young father in law: he comes to my kitchen everyday for lunch and always leaves it much cleaner than I did,” especially knowing she recently lost her own father (which I would never have known if it weren’t for Facebook updates).
Facebook updates are not always happy news. Sometimes updates are about my childhood friend John Scott ending up in the ER after getting “my clock cleaned by the goal keeper in geezer soccer,” or that Scott Fullager, the nicest guy in the world, is stuck in an airport on his birthday because it “looks like no flights home — weather, weather. Great!”
But according to Christakis and Fowler, “happiness is more contagious than unhappiness.” Each happy friend can increase your happiness by 9 percent, but the grouches only pull you down by 7 percent. So by maximizing your number of contacts, the happy and unhappy moods net out for a positive on the happy side.
The three degree factor may be why it’s so fascinating to see what people are writing on your friends’ walls, when you don’t even know those people at all. I’ve never met my friend Janneke’s neighbor, but I like knowing that her neighbors’ dog groomer also works for Janneke’s parents. (I especially like Janneke’s response about being glad to know who’s been keeping her parents so well-groomed.)
LinkedIn and Twitter don’t provide the same material for happiness, in my experience. LinkedIn is too dry. A useful network, but a little like sifting through a big stack of resumes. Twitter is such a fast-flowing river that it’s tough to keep up with any one person. What you find on Facebook is a small town, although a small town with no geographical boundaries. For many of us, Facebook is the new Framingham.