The Lifestyle Implications of Your Social Network

Human beings are social animals. This is something we’ve known for a long time, but often neglect in practice. Maintaining our social interactions is a fundamental human need, and consequently holds many undervalued benefits to our health, our well-being and our economic prosperity. The trouble is, quality of social interaction is difficult to measure and differentiating between quality and quantity is not always easy.

The need for interaction has evolutionary roots. Throughout human evolution co-operation has been fundamental to progress, and the benefits of working together could only be realised through building trusted relationships. Indeed in many non-Western societies social life is central to the organisation of both economic and political structures.

In the modern world our social networks are ever expanding. While we are reaping many benefits from breadth of interaction, we must take caution and ensure we do not neglect the relationships that are most important. Limited cognitive resources mean that there is a real trade off between depth and breadth. How then should we be prioritising our attention, and how is social network structure affecting our lives?

Well, it turns out that the strength of connections is very important and indicates well the degree to which our interactions have influence. We are far more likely to listen to a good friend than a stranger, and we will go as far as adapting our behaviour to imitate theirs if the connection is strong enough.

This is particularly true with health and lifestyle choices. Shockingly, a close friend becoming obese increases your chance of becoming obese by 171%. Similar results were found for other health behaviours, notably smoking cessation, through research conducted by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler of Yale and University of California. Christakis and Fowler analysed data collected from the longitudinal Framingham Heart Study, covering over 12,000 participants. Social distance was found to be a good predictor of influence on lifestyle.

These results spread across multiple degrees of separation in social networks, (for instance, if your best friend’s friend becomes obese your chance increases) but strength of connection magnified the effect. For Christakis and Fowler, influence was notable to three degrees of separation. Social discounting ensures that those close connections have a proportionally greater influence, so, if you want to lose weight, you should spend a lot of time with close, gym savvy friends.

Results surrounding physical health are telling, but perhaps the most interesting revelation to come from this body of literature has been the qualified discovery that our social networks have a profound impact on our happiness and wellbeing. Evidence suggests that mitigating against social isolation and solidifying strong friendships could be as important to your health as not smoking.

But how do we build and maintain strong relationships in an increasingly busy world? Strong ties are built not just from frequency of interaction, but also depend on depth and shared experience. It is possible to build ‘weak links’ through quick and convenient communication such as texting and instant messaging, and these mechanisms are useful for maintaining strong links, but they will not strengthen ties.

So, for happier and healthier lives and relationships, we need to get out, share experiences and surround ourselves with the people whose influence we find most positive. There is certainly scope for the next wave of social innovators to reflect these findings, and those who do have huge potential to change lifestyle choices for the better.