Scientists have noticed that we tend to reflect the people we’re closest to — if our friends are optimists, it makes us more cheery, and if they have healthy lifestyle habits, we often improve our own. Large, long-term studies have begun decoding how social networks influence not only our moods but also our total health. Here’s what they found:
- The more social ties people have at an early age, the better their health at both the beginning and end of their life. Young people with a large social network over their life are less likely to have abdominal obesity, inflammation, and high blood pressure.
- Fewer social ties can lead to health problems. Social isolation increases risk of inflammation by the same amount as physical inactivity, and social integration protects against abdominal obesity.
- In middle adulthood what matters most is the amount of social support or strain provided by the social network. At this mid life stage, quality of the social network was more important than network size.
- In old age, social isolation is more harmful to health than diabetes with respect to hypertension risk.
Researchers also learned these things about happy people
- Happy people tend to be located in the center of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people.
- The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network. For example, a friend who lives within a mile and who becomes happy increases the probability that you will be happy by 25%.
Happiness is, researchers suggest, a property of groups of people, and changes in individual happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large-scale change.
The happiness bottom line
We are social creatures, weaving social webs that influence our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being, similar to the Buddhist analogy of a jeweled net in which each jewel, representing one individual, is linked to all other jewels by a complex woven structure. Your actions, deeds, and thoughts influence the whole. Be the shining jewel that you are!
Fowler, JH, and N. Cristakis. 2008. Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ 337:a2338.
Yang, CY, et al. 2016. Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 113(3):578-583.
I’m Dr. Susan Brown. I am a nutritionist, medical anthropologist, writer, and speaker. Get my free weekly newsletter here.