Catching Happiness

“If someone tells you that you can influence 1,000 people, it changes your way of viewing the world.”
– James Fowler, researcher at the forefront of the science of social contagion

Fowler and his partner Nicholas Christakis are putting numbers behind the idea that behaviors can be contagious. We’ve been hearing this for decades from sociologists, philosophers and more recently marketers who posit that our efforts to bias, intensify and expand purchase and usage behaviors are optimized when we’re able to identify and align with key social network leaders and influencers.

What’s different about the Fowler/Christakis work – and most intriguing to this writer – is the idea that all of us are more influential than we might realize. “Even as we are being influenced by others,” says Christakis, “we can influence others.” This may have implications for marketers, many of whom have perhaps been too quick to make a practice and priority of “identifying influencers.” What if we’re all influencers? And what if – as Fowler and Christakis also posit – influence isn’t transmitted as directly and deliberately as we believe it is?

A few more noteworthy conclusions/theories to come out of the Fowler/Christakis work:

  1. The flow of information and influence between direct connections is not always symmetrical. There’s a “directionality” effect in play that defines the degree to which individuals in a social network are able to influence one another.
  2. Certain emotions are more “contagious” than others. Happiness, for example, is more contagious than unhappiness.
  3. By extension, the more connected we are the happier we are, even if our relationships aren’t necessarily deep ones. (This writer wonders: how does this play out in the virtual world?)
  4. An individual’s influence can stretch out three degrees before it begins to fade, and it can even skip a degree. The implications of this are profound in commercial, public health and policy circles.

Fowler and Christakis will publish their findings in book form in the coming months. I read about them in Clive Thompson’s 09-13-09 New York Times Sunday Magazine piece entitled, “Is Happiness Catching?”.

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