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?