The Power of Human Connection

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Many years ago, as a lonely starving student, I took a walk to get away from my dingy apartment and my blue mood.  I saw a rumpled flyer on the wall of a store.  It read “Volunteers needed for suicide prevention hotline and food bank.  No experience necessary.  Training provided.  Call Crisis House.”  Attracted to the “no experience necessary” phrase and the idea of helping people, I wrote the telephone number on my hand.  The human connections I made from that phone call led me to my first professional job.  That job and those friendships led to my next professional position and my next.  Years later I would meet my husband from the string of human connections made from that random phone call and volunteer experience.

The famous social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, performed a “small world” experiment.  He wanted to see how many human connections it would take for a random group of people in Omaha Nebraska to send a letter to a specific person they didn’t know in Boston.  People were told to send the letter to anyone they knew who might know someone in Boston.  On average it took 6 stops before the letter reached the man in Boston.  This spurred the “six degrees of separation” concept.  Subsequent modern experiments, using email, support Milgram’s finding that we are, on average, about six hops from anyone in the world.  For example, I know someone (one hop) who knows the American Idol star Adam Lambert (two hops).  Adam knows Ryan Seacrest, the host of a gazillion television shows (three hops).  Ryan knows Oprah Winfrey (four hops).  Oprah knows almost everyone in the world (five hops).  So if you know me you are six hops from anyone in the world.  If you know Oprah you’re a lot closer.

People still have fun with the “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game.  For epidemiologists the study of human connections is serious business.  Outbreaks of SARS, AIDS and swine flu send scientists running to contain the spread of potentially fatal diseases.  Human emotions spread in a similar way.  Numerous examples of mass hysteria, have been reported throughout history.  Researchers have found that anger, fear, anxiety, happiness and depression spread like viruses through our human networks.  They discovered that humans influence one another at three degrees of separation.  This is called the “three degrees of influence” rule.  For example, if I’m a happy person my happiness can influence my friend’s friend’s friend.  In fact, having happy friends better predicts your happiness than having money.  Similarly we know obesity spreads through networks as our behaviors and norms influence our friends.

Sociologist Brian Uzzi performed some interesting studies on social networks.  He and his colleague Jarrett Spiro studied Broadway shows to try to find out why some succeeded and some failed, despite comparable talent.  They found that shows made with people who had never worked together tended to fail.  At the other extreme, shows made with people who had all worked together previously also performed poorly.  Uzzi found the most successful creative collaborations consisted of individuals with both weak and strong ties.  The strongly linked performers possessed a comfort with one another and the newcomers inspired spice and originality.  Businesses seeking to inspire creativity might learn from this combination of strong and weak ties.

If you want to learn to build stronger networks check out this article coauthored by Uzzi.  Stronger social networks correlate with higher income, better health, fewer days of loneliness and increased happiness.  It appears that a combination of strong and weak ties helps provide the human connections we need for optimal functioning.  Close ties to family and deep long-term friendships provide strong connections that can help us slog along through the storms of life.  If you add weaker ties with community associations, religious or political organizations or other social groups, you infuse your life with a diversity of social connections that can inform and inspire you.  Loss of loved one’s is a painful fact of life.  Those with a variety of social connections make it through these painful times much better than those on the periphery of the network.  In fact, providing social support to others helps our health and well-being even more than those we support.

If you feel depressed, angry, afraid, anxious, worried…all those gloomy feelings, think about whose day you can brighten.  Think about how you might influence your friends, friend’s friend.  Self-destructive behavior hurts the people we know and the people they know too.  On a happier note, we can uplift others with simple thoughtful gestures, laughter, music and limitless other kindnesses.  When we help others we literally help ourselves by uplifting our entire network.

On a miserable day, many years ago, I took a walk to get out of my dreary mood.  I saw a flyer, made a call, and worked on a hotline helping others.  That single decision led to many human connections (including you fine readers) that inspire and challenge me to this day.  Happy connecting!