Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Social Network

How Flesh-and-Blood Friends Influence Your Life & Your Health

Those flocking to The Social Network, the story about the founders of Facebook, which is getting seemingly endless critical raves, already know that Facebook is a social revolution. The Facebook culture has emboldened old friends to re-connect, incited passionate fans to band together, and has served as much as the conduit to nasty conduct as it has to positive action.

Lest we forget, in the age of online connectivity, traditional social networks have been around well before Mark Zuckerberg was born, and whether we realize it or not—or understand exactly how— real world social networks have a surprisingly dramatic effect on our habits. The behaviors and lifestyles of those close to us in the flesh – whether they are relatives, friends or frenemies, can cause us be fat, thin, healthy or unhealthy and happy or unhappy.

Who's to Blame For Your Health?

Your peer group, according to studies, has an effect on your weight, your health, how much you drink, if you smoke, and your state of mind. Not only do your friends appear to spread their habits to you like a virus spreads at the height of cold and flu season, friends of friends exact a powerful influence as well. While your weight is likely to go up if your spouse's goes up, the same is true if your friend's weight goes up, and, more surprisingly, if your friend's friend's weight goes up. Your health and your state of mind can be affected by someone whose name your can't even remember.

Researchers/authors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler are responsible for a study that provided this intriguing information about our behavior and our peer groups more than a year ago, and wrote about it in their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. They found that behaviors pass from friend to friend "almost as if they were contagious viruses". When a friend became obese, they determined, that increased a person’s chances of becoming obese by 57%. Apparently, it's an effect that occurs in real world relationships only. According to Christakis, online social networks don't have the same affect as real friends. Because our Facebook friends are really just acquaintances (no, you do not have 579 actual friends, but you may have 4 or 5) they do not have the same "contagious" consequence.

The influence of friends is no big surprise. In fact, the World Health Organization lists them as a determinant of health, as big a factor as genetics and income level. But what is surprising is that the data gathered by Christakis and Fowler suggested that people influenced one another’s health through mere socializing. A subsequent article in New York Times on the topic called Are Your Friends Making You Fat? stated that the influence was as detectable with good behaviors as they were with bad. Clusters of friends, it said, "appeared to 'infect' each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking. Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of your genes and your diet, it seems. Good health is also a product, in part, of your sheer proximity to other healthy people."

Also interesting, our social network can have an extraordinary influence on those trying, and failing, to keep health goals. The Fowler-Christakis study explores the idea that while individuals can be successful losing weight, keeping it off can be cruelly difficult. The reason? The country's obesity levels are growing, and if that individual is surrounded by obese people – and in our current culture they are – they are much more likely to gain weight. That's because the influence occurs two or three links away – with friends of friends – people we may not even know. In an unhealthy society, our social networks exact an insidious control on us – one determined to keep us unhealthy.

Working the Real Social Network


What do we do in a world conspiring to keep us unhealthy? Those who work to affect behaviors at a municipal level may be at the heart of truly having a broad based influence on society. Until we understand exactly how that can be successful, here are some ways to make the real Social Network work for us, and not against us:
  • Set health goals with friends and maintain them together—or ideally, hook up with friends of friends, sprinkling your network with good influences.
  • Publicly display the status of your progress. Keep an updated Facebook page, or use Twitter to tell your followers whether you've met your health goal for the day. 
  • Join an "artificial" social group: Weight Watchers, for instance, can provide positive support if you are trying to lose weight.
  • Form a bond with someone whose habits you want to emulate. Joining a gym, for instance, might help you connect with people who are fit, if you are trying to get healthy. 
  • Be an influencer. The more positive influences we have, the more society will absorb the benefit of your positive pressure. Swayed by those around you ordering dessert in a restaurant? Order first—and get the fruit salad.  
  • Get conscious. Studies indicate that the decision-making part of our brain dozes off when we focus on the behaviors of others. (That's why fast food restaurants spend so much money on advertising.) Be aware of how the people, messages, and media around you are influencing you, and start making your own decisions – plan your dinner, for example, or bring your own lunch to work. 
It seems your relationship status really is complicated. But don't despair. Take a moment and update your Facebook status to Healthy anyway, and tweet about your latest plateful of fruits and veggies. You'll be taking a powerful step toward changing the world, or at least, your friends.

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