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For the last few years I have been following the fascinating discussion around what is socially transmitted and what is not. (Here’s an earlier post on this topic.) While the claim that happiness is contagious (and the subject of the lead article about the work of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler in the Sunday New York Times and written by Clive Thompson) is still being argued in terms of its scientific and statistical validity, the power of this way of thinking—that we affect the lives of our friends as well as their friends—is daunting.

As Thompson points out in his excellent piece,

There is…something empowering about the idea that we are so entwined. “Even as we are being influenced by others, we can influence others,” Christakis told me… “And therefore the importance of taking actions that are beneficial to others is heightened. So this network thing can cut both ways, subverting our ability to have free will, but increasing, if you will, the importance of us having free will…” If you want to improve the world with your good behavior, math is on your side. For most of us, within three degrees we are connected to more than 1,000 people — all of whom we can theoretically help make healthier, fitter and happier just by our contagious example. “If someone tells you that you can influence 1,000 people,” Fowler said, “it changes your way of seeing the world.”

Our connectedness as social creatures is being discussed more now than ever. And it isn’t just the topic of social networking and the Facebook/MySpace/twitter phenomenon. The global financial downtown revealed the depth of our reticulated connectedness. At first I was shocked to see how deep the Madoff Ponzi scheme put philanthropic organizations at risk all over the globe, or how thoroughly enmeshed our banking and financial institutions are with each other regardless of national borders and political systems.

Another crucial area of heightened awareness of the stealth nature of our impact on each other is ecological. James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis—positing an earth that is one organism of which we all play a part—is no longer viewed as just another New Age stonerism but a valid scientific theory.

In all of this discussion of what we can and can’t catch from each other, what else is being epidemicized? Christakis and Fowler’s research has public health officials thinking differently about how to deal with reported pockets of obesity. But what about more positive pockets occurring, like bastions of poetry readers and art lovers? Could the love of wisdom have a viral component too?

Ah, the leaky margins. There is so much more than we know about who we are. Or who our friends’ friends may be.

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