Religion as Friendship

September 15, 2009 | 28 comments
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Yesterday in Elders Quorum I taught Lesson 40: “How Glorious are Faithful, Just and True Friends.” It was a lot of fun — it’s a great set of discussion materials. Today, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about the science of human friendship and connection. I love the idea of Zion as a community. Most of our most rewarding experiences come in the context of interaction with other people. And when the church community is functioning right, it can not only provide a setting but also facilitate the building of those kinds of bonds of friendship — nudging us constantly to build and renew friendships.

Let me copy a few paragraphs from the lesson, and a few from the article. I found the resonance striking.

Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers. … Friendship is like Brother [Theodore] Turley in his blacksmith shop welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence.

We received some letters last evening—one from Emma, one from Don C. Smith [Joseph’s brother], and one from Bishop [Edward] Partridge—all breathing a kind and consoling spirit. We were much gratified with their contents. We had been a long time without information; and when we read those letters they were to our souls as the gentle air is refreshing, but our joy was mingled with grief, because of the sufferings of the poor and much injured Saints. And we need not say to you that the floodgates of our hearts were lifted and our eyes were a fountain of tears, but those who have not been enclosed in the walls of prison without cause or provocation, can have but little idea how sweet the voice of a friend is; one token of friendship from any source whatever awakens and calls into action every sympathetic feeling; it brings up in an instant everything that is past; it seizes the present with the avidity [eagerness] of lightning; it grasps after the future with the fierceness of a tiger; it moves the mind backward and forward, from one thing to another, until finally all enmity, malice and hatred, and past differences, misunderstandings and mismanagements are slain victorious at the feet of hope.

But two years ago, a pair of social scientists named Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler used the information collected over the years about Joseph and Eileen and several thousand of their neighbors to make an entirely different kind of discovery. By analyzing the Framingham data, Christakis and Fowler say, they have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses. The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influenced one another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviors — clusters of friends 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. By keeping in close, regular contact with other healthy friends for decades, Eileen and Joseph had quite possibly kept themselves alive and thriving.

Next they analyzed the data, beginning with tracking patterns of how and when Framingham residents became obese. Soon they had created an animated diagram of the entire social network, with each resident represented on their computer screens as a dot that grew bigger or smaller as he or she gained or lost weight over 32 years, from 1971 to 2003. When they ran the animation, they could see that obesity broke out in clusters. People weren’t just getting fatter randomly. Groups of people would become obese together, while other groupings would remain slender or even lose weight. And the social effect appeared to be quite powerful. When a Framingham resident became obese, his or her friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese, too. Even more astonishing to Christakis and Fowler was the fact that the effect didn’t stop there. In fact, it appeared to skip links. A Framingham resident was roughly 20 percent more likely to become obese if the friend of a friend became obese — even if the connecting friend didn’t put on a single pound. Indeed, a person’s risk of obesity went up about 10 percent even if a friend of a friend of a friend gained weight.

“People are connected, and so their health is connected,” Christakis and Fowler concluded when they summarized their findings in a July 2007 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, the first time the prestigious journal published a study of how social networks affect health. Or as Christakis and Fowler put it in “Connected,” their coming book on their findings: “You may not know him personally, but your friend’s husband’s co-worker can make you fat. And your sister’s friend’s boyfriend can make you thin.”

The subconscious nature of emotional mirroring might explain one of the more curious findings in their research: If you want to be happy, what’s most important is to have lots of friends. 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. When you frequently see other people smile — at home, in the street, at your local bar — your spirits are repeatedly affected by your mirroring of their emotional state.

What do you think, friends?

28 Responses to Religion as Friendship

  1. Amanda on September 15, 2009 at 7:55 am

    i guess i better stay friends with skinny people.

  2. Amanda on September 15, 2009 at 7:57 am

    Ok, snide comment. But really, I think this is fascinating and beautiful. It enforces the idea of Zion and its importance in becoming and being better people.

  3. Julie M. Smith on September 15, 2009 at 8:25 am

    I taught the same lesson. Fortunately, I’d read that article before hand and incorporated it in to my lesson. :)

  4. Bob on September 15, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I think Mormons have strong sense of kinship, community, and tribe, but not friendship.

  5. Daniel on September 15, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Jesus taught, “Love your enemies”.

    Once you are branded as a person who does not believe the mainstream LDS dogma, you are treated as an enemy (the self-righteous “place enmity between you and them”).

    How do you “make friends” with someone you have deemed to be your enemy?

    (does calling them a “troll” count? What about calling them “an ignorant wretch”?)

  6. Ardis Parshall on September 15, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    I think this is something that we recognize instinctively — surrounding yourself with people who are what you want to remain or become is a real boost; too much contact with people whose moods or behaviors or outlooks are not good can drag you down. It’s interesting to have that instinct taken seriously and studied.

    We see this in gospel settings, even in Mormon settings on the internet. Spend a lot of time reading blogs and comments by hypercritical people and you start faultfinding yourself. Spend that time reading blogs and comments that reflect the best of what you see in church life, and you’re reassured that you aren’t alone, that it’s okay to actually like the church and church members.

    I don’t see anything in this report that suggests any necessity to mingle *exclusively* with people whose contagious traits are positive in order to be positive yourself — everybody has to deal with a terminally angry boss or a brother whose religious struggles have led him to be a black hole. “Many small moments of contagious happiness” can survive the occasional waves of misery, and “mourning with those who mourn” eventually turns to sweetness for everybody.

  7. Toria on September 15, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    The article reminded me of how important it is to strike a balance between caring too much about what others think of you to the point of obsessing over image and acceptance and caring too little about what others think that you easily dismiss others and thus often offend them or isolate yourself.

    I guess Zion works so perfectly because the people you care about also care about you and about what really matters so that when you do those things that please them, you also end up doing those things that uplift you.

  8. Daniel on September 15, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Ardis,

    Am I understanding you right? If so, then “fascism” is the good and noble outcome of this “natural” tendency and instinct to cleave only to those who are like you in belief and behavior?

    Is this also an implicit surrenduring of the principle of “agency” by which this “instinct” and the influence of others is “responsible” for our being “dragged down”?

    Doesn’t “loving your enemies” fly in the face of what you have declared?

  9. Kaimi Wenger on September 15, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Step away from the crack pipe, Daniel. No one is advocating fascism, least of all Ardis.

  10. Ziff on September 15, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Interesting connection, Kaimi.

    I like the idea of the Church nudging us toward building and renewing friendships, as you put it. My experience is that “socializing” as a motive for going to church is frowned upon. But it’s worked well for me, even being an introvert, and it’s nice to have a little support for the idea.

    Also, tangentially, my heart is always warmed when I read the verse in the D&C where the Lord says he’ll call those he’s addressing friends. It’s nice to think of him considering people that way, in spite of our tendency to be like sheep and go astray or chickens that don’t want to be gathered by the hen.

  11. Daniel on September 15, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Kaimi,

    Easy for you to assert, but please support your claim. How does this NOT result in fascism?

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 15, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Re #8: Gosh, Daniel, I would never have guessed based on many of your recent comments that “Love your enemies” was what you strove to do–including your specific comment today.

    The armed forces very consciously seek to create deep relationships between people of diverse backgrounds, both in training and in the communities that operate on and around military bases, with lots of opportunities for shared recreation and worship.

    Because the LDS church assigns people to wards and branches according to geography rather than preference (with the exception of single adult and foreign language congregations), we find ourselves interacting with all sorts of folks with whom we may share nothing except for our common devotion to the same religious beliefs. In the best circumstances, the church can form social glue that connects people across socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries, in ways that would not otherwise happen. And hopefully the positive influence we can have on each other can work through that network of quorum, Relief Society, Primary, Young Women, Scouts, home teachers, Sunday School teachers and classes, etc.

    Of course, the most intense experience of taking us out of our comfort zone is missionary service. Mongolians and Kenyans teaching to Idahoans, and Idahoans preaching to people in Cote d’Ivoire, Kazakhstan and Tonga can alter our perspectives and forge ties that last a lifetime. Millions of such ties decrease the category of “potential enemy”.

  13. Ardis Parshall on September 15, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    8: Daniel, try not to be quite such a jerk. I sense that it’s hard for you, but try.

  14. Daniel on September 15, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Ardis,

    I forgot to use the “jerk” emoticons. How could you tell I was being such a “jerk” just by my comments? Your gift of personality profiling via weblog is incredible! I am in awe!

    I never claimed to strive to “love [my] enemies” – this isn’t about my beliefs or my worthiness.

    The question is about whether or not the doctrine (taught by Jesus Christ) is consistent with or flies in the face of the idea Ardis conveyed. My point was that an “instinctual” tendency for “birds of a feather” to flock together seems to lead inexorably toward fascism.

    My comments were not an attack on Ardis as a person; they were clearly directed at the points she made, not at her.

    Please try not to take things so personally. And please try not to attack me personally in return. I have such a weak constitution, I’m not confident I can endure such attacks!

    ;-)

  15. queuno on September 15, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    The last paragraph seems to defend having as many facebook friends as possible.

  16. Ardis Parshall on September 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Do us all a favor, Daniel, and take this very personally: Get lost.

  17. Daniel on September 15, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Ardis,

    As you wish.

  18. Steve Evans on September 15, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Only then did Ardis realize — when Daniel said, “as you wish,” what he meant was: “I love you.”

    That, and she also realized that Daniel is largely a troll and an ignorant wretch.

  19. Ardis Parshall on September 15, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Steve is one of the greats. Take that personally.

  20. kevinf on September 15, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Steve, maybe Daniel didn’t realize that he should never go up against a Sicilian when death (or banishment) is on the line.

    Kaimi, interesting stuff. I’m reminded of Pres. Hinckley’s comment to Mike Wallace in one of their interviews that the gospel is about making bad men (and women) good, and good ones better. The constant give and take of a geographically assigned congregation is one aspect of why the institutional church works so well, in my experience. One day you are the EQ President, the next day you are called as a member of the activities committee. The desire to exercise unrighteous dominion pretty much gets knocked out of you when you realize that someone else will be in your calling someday, and you’ll learn to be patient as they learn the calling, and make some of the same mistakes you did.

    However, I am moving to the skinniest ward in the stake.

  21. Geoff B on September 15, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Personally, I vote that trolls should be banned. Daniel has now ruined several threads on T&S. Just saying…

    Kaimi, great point. Personally, I think a stake made up of Bloggernaclites would get along a lot better in person than on the internet. Somehow, people say and do things on blogs that they would most likely not do in person. Most people act in good faith, but very often things they write are taken the wrong way, and then bad feelings sometimes result.

    In the spirit of this post, I am reminded of John 15:13.

  22. queuno on September 15, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    I think a stake made up of Bloggernaclites would get along a lot better in person than on the internet.

    Except we’d all complain about the gospel doctrine lesson, no matter who was teaching it… :)

  23. Sterling Fluharty on September 15, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Does this mean David Riesman got things half right in his book _The Lonely Crowd_? Have we become considerably “other-directed” but also consummately capable of creating contagious companionship for one another?

  24. Bob on September 15, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    I could could possibly count on my fingers those in my life I would call a friend.
    To me, a friend is someone I would call during the week or lunch with without a reason..not work..not church. Any topic would be open. Whatever time may bring, these people would be a friend for life.

  25. Kirk Caudle on September 16, 2009 at 6:00 am

    I have not posted on here before. However, I read all of the time. And what made me decided to post now? I just needed to agree 100% with #21, and as a GD teacher (and as one who studies religion in school) give a big LOL to #22.

  26. Stephanie on September 16, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    I think that the gospel should be primarily about friendship (loving others as we love ourselves, bearing one another’s burdens). When I went to women’s conference last year, one of the messages that has stayed with me is that the church should function to aid in fostering relationships – the relationships are the point. Understanding this has revolutionized my perspective of visiting teaching/home teaching. The point is not to make a visit each month or even to share the message – it is to be a true friend.

    It irks me when we get so busy with church stuff (like going to ward activities) that we neglect the relationships.

  27. annegb on September 21, 2009 at 11:07 am

    With everything I’ve done the last few years, you’d think my faithful LDS friends would be avoiding me like the plague. But you know, they don’t. Living in southern Utah, with the strong (strong is a mild word) LDS influence on everything, complete orthodoxy seems like the only way to friendship. But it seems like in the last few years, we’re all relaxing a bit about it. And probably being more Christlike in the process.

  28. Mike on September 22, 2009 at 10:38 am

    The EQP just asked me to teach lesson 40 next week. Since I look like a scarecrow, I don’t know about using the obesity-friendship angle, what do you think? (Maybe the reason everyone in my quorum is so fat is that they can’t stand the likes me?)

    I think I will use the little exchange between Ardis and the troll as an example of how to be friendly with people on the internet. Yea, direct quotes from both. See which bird of a feather the members of my quorum will flock with together.

    Immediately before the lesson, we will be given another stack of names of “lost sheep” to shag down. Most of those ignorant wretches do not believe mainstrean orthodox LDS teachings, if they even bother to let us talk to them. I will remind myself to tell them that if they can not behave in a place as anonymous as the internet, we sure as heck don’t want them disrupting the sacredness of our church meetings with their irreverent questions.

    Kaimi, pass me the crack pipe.