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Home / Foray Fit / Spring 2022 Newsletter: The Social Network
A mature group of friends spending time together walking outdoors

Spring 2022 Newsletter: The Social Network

Considering the health benefits (and science) of friendship

It goes without saying that most of our friendships and extended family relationships have taken a hit in the past few years.  
 
So it should come as no surprise that the health benefits of friendship have been much in the news as our lives begin to bear a greater resemblance to a pre-COVID normal. 

Every day bears a mention of the digest of research showing that people who have more friends, or better friends, will live longer, and have overall better health status.
 
This discourse is not particularly new and, over the past 20 odd years, it is true; a veritable trove of research has accumulated beneath the surface of all the happy talk.
 
However, a recent tour through some of the most commonly cited studies left me largely unimpressed.
 
But I was struck by a solid, deeply researched article from 2008 published in the British Medical Journal.  The authors, James H Fowler and Nicholas A Christakis, analyzed the relationships and the happiness of more than 4,700 people, over a 20-year period, in the Framingham Heart Study. 
 
(A famous and enduring longitudinal study, the Framingham Heart Study began in 1948, continues today, and has provided the core knowledge for prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. It has also had the happy benefit of providing a rich data resource for numerous other research and studies, in this case, social networks.)
 
Looking at the data and network of participants from the study, Drs. Fowler and Christaki found something notable: Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people's happiness extends up to the friends of one's' friends' friends.
 
And their abstract bore even more good news: Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals. Happiness was associated with geographic proximity, whether to a friend or relative, and was surprisingly associated between next-door neighbors.  The positive "emotional contagion" waned with physical separation and over time.   
 
In other words, happiness appears to be highly contagious and spreads through extended social networks with ease.
 
These findings are, of course, particularly timely for us now as we begin to reestablish the relationships affected by the isolation of COVID. Many of us were able to maintain a few close friends, but wider circles of extended friends and acquaintances mostly shrank. 
 
Though some people were able to thrive socially on Zoom (I was not one of them), many have still not returned to their larger circles or have found difficulty reviving even their closest friendships.  Perhaps they moved or their social organizations are still not fully open. Some "besties" may have found that they had conflicting health needs and preferences.
 
Or the reality of a lack of communal experiences might be a hurdle. When you haven’t seen someone for more than two years, the initial thrill of reunion is rapidly replaced by the effort to revive shared interests.    
 
But the pandemic isolation, ghastly as it was, also offers us a clean slate.  Friends from yesteryear who may have gone in another direction may represent a setback, but there are new friendships waiting to be formed.
 
As Fowler and Christakis noted, geographic proximity to a friend will increase the likelihood of a happy relationship, and increase the chance of "spread" through a social network.   
 
So get out. Walk around. You never know who you’ll find who is waiting to make a new friend.

A portrait and signature of Dr. Patricia Kavanagh founder of Foray Design
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An older gentleman uses the Spring rolling walker outdoors

 

Banner Image Credit: A group of friends spend time outdoors walking, Shutterstock 792589768