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The Impact of Social Networks

By Tricia Andor, Licensed Professional Counselor

Yesterday Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning featured authors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. Their newly released book Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives holds a stunning perspective about why we wear the clothing styles we do, why we have the body weight we do, whether we do or don’t smoke or drink, whether we feel happy or anxious.

Our friends’ friends’ friends.

Social psychology has always highlighted the role one’s environment – the people around you and the decisions they make, social roles and social and cultural norms, and even what you and others around you wear – has on an individual’s behavior.

This book’s distinctive lies in emphasizing your social network beyond your immediate friends – your friends’ friends’ friends – people you don’t even know – suggesting that these people two and three degrees away from you can actually have quire a significant influence on decisions you make, your emotional state, your body size, and how prone you are to carrying out altruistic acts.

For instance, one of the study’s findings is that if a person who is three degrees of separation away from you becomes obese, the likelihood of you becoming obese increases by three times. Authors Christakis and Fowler suggest that what’s happening is social norms are being transmitted from person to person, much the way the flu is passed from one person to another (sorry for the downer example).

So where does this leave those who seek to make personal change in their lives? Those who are visiting this site desiring to become their best selves? Are our choices and drinking behaviors and body sizes really just determined by the decisions and actions of people two to three degrees of separation away from us?

Take heart. The social influences mentioned are not deterministic, and there are so many additional influences in a person’s life, including free agency. One of the most helpful aspects to therapy is becoming aware of the myriad of influences that cause us to do what we do, think what we think, feel what we feel. Becoming aware of the social norms, habits, feelings, and beliefs you and those close to you hold – however they got there – is incredibly powerful. It is indeed one of the most powerful tools towards achieving change.

So Connected has made it to the top of my reading list. It has also brought to the forefront of my mind all the tools available to people for achieving more hope-filled, happy, calm, meaningful lives. And, it brings to mind all the times I’ve witnessed these very kinds of change happen.