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3 science-backed ways to make Karma work for you
Karma may be quite real, according to research into social networks. Here's how to take advantage.
 
Six degrees of Kevin Bacon: Science.
Six degrees of Kevin Bacon: Science. (Kevin Roche/WBTV via Getty Images)

Do you believe in karma?

Research shows that most of us do, whether we admit it or not.

When we want something and we're unsure whether we'll get it, we become more helpful. As I wrote previously:

We suggest that when wanting and uncertainty are high and personal control is lacking, people may be more likely to help others, as if they can encourage fate's favor by doing good deeds proactively. Four experiments support this karmic-investment hypothesis. [Barking Up the Wrong Tree]

You feel that if you do something good, fate will look on you fondly and grant your wishes. But this isn't utter delusion or pollyanna foolishness.

Research into social networks is showing karma may be quite real.

The people who surround you dramatically affect your behavior without you even realizing it.

You know the "six degrees of separation" idea or the more popular "six degrees of Kevin Bacon"?

(I explored this concept in a post about Paul Erdos — the undeniable center of the mathematics world.)

Behavior is influenced three degrees out. So you are affected by the whims of friends of friends of friends — and similarly, they by you.

Political views, weight gain, smoking and even that very very important thing, happiness, are all influenced by strangers.

Our own research has shown that the spread of influence in social networks obeys what we call the Three Degrees of Influence Rule. Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends' friends (two degrees), and even our friends' friends' friends (three degrees)… The Three Degrees Rule applies to a broad range of attitudes, feelings, and behaviors, and it applies to the spread of phenomena as diverse as political views, weight gain, and happiness. [Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives]

Have a depressed roommate? You're more likely to become depressed. Moods can be like infections.

Experiments have demonstrated that people can "catch" emotional states they observe in others over time frames ranging from seconds to weeks. When college freshmen are randomly assigned to live with mildly depressed roommates, they become increasingly depressed over a three-month period. [Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives]

Happy friends make you 15 percent more likely to be happy.

Even if a friend of a friend of a friend becomes happier, that means a 6 percent chance you will become happier.

Mathematical analyses of the network suggest that a person is about 15 percent more likely to be happy if a directly connected person (at one degree of separation) is happy. And the spread of happiness doesn't stop there. The happiness effect for people at two degrees of separation (the friend of a friend) is 10 percent, and for people at three degrees of separation (the friend of a friend of a friend), it is about 6 percent. [Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives]

Neat trick but 6 percent may not seem like a big deal to you.

Guess what? You're wrong. Making friends = making happiness.

Would $10,000 dollars make you happier? I'll assume you're nodding. Research shows 10K only provides a 2 percent increased chance of happiness.

So the happiness of people you have never met — and may never meet — is three times as powerful.

An extra $ 5,000 in 1984 dollars (which corresponds to about $10,000 in 2009 dollars) was associated with only a 2 percent increased chance of a person being happy. So, having happy friends and relatives appears to be a more effective predictor of happiness than earning more money. And the amazing thing is that even people who are three degrees removed from you, whom you may have never met, can have a stronger impact on your personal happiness than a wad of hundreds in your pocket. [Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives]

A happy friend increases the likelihood of you being happy by 9 percent. An unhappy friend means a 7 percent decrease.

You don't need a degree in accounting to figure out what that means: overall, more friends = more happiness.

Spending time making friends has a higher happiness ROI than time spent making money.

We found that each happy friend a person has increases that person's probability of being happy by about 9 percent. Each unhappy friend decreases it by 7 percent. So if you were simply playing the averages, and you didn't know anything about the emotional state of a new person you just met, you would probably want to be friends with her. She might make you unhappy, but there is a better chance she will make you happy. This helps to explain why past researchers have found an association between happiness and the number of friends and family. [Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives]

The best way to be selfish might be selflessness

You probably know where I'm going with this whole science of karma thing now: you can totally rig the system.

With the effect spanning three degrees, there's a good chance making most people in your daily life happy will flow back to you.

Christakis and Fowler found that if a friend became happy in the past six months there's a 45 percent chance your happiness will increase.

At the very least, working to keep your friends happy protects you against "infection" by unhappiness.

Want to be happier? Here is the best way to be selfish about happiness is looking like selflessness.

Introduce friends to friends

Unsurprisingly, people at the periphery of a network have fewer friends and are more likely to be lonely.

And yes, that loneliness can flow back three degrees to you. (And no, you can't easily track these people down and kick them out of your network.)

Know what you can do? Introduce your friends to other friends.

Like I said: happy friends means 9 percent gain, unhappy friend means 7 percent loss. All other things being equal, I'll take those odds in Vegas any day.

This strengthens the network, and selfishly increases your chance of staying happy.

At the periphery, people have fewer friends; this makes them lonely, but this also tends to drive them to cut the few ties that they have left. But before they do, they may infect their friends with the same feeling of loneliness, starting the cycle anew. These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a strand of yarn that comes loose from the sleeve of a sweater. If we are concerned about combating the feeling of loneliness in our society, we should aggressively target the people at the periphery with interventions to repair their social networks. By helping them, we can create a protective barrier against loneliness that will keep the whole network from unraveling. [Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives]

The idea of karma has been around for thousands of years and, if you think about it, back then people knew very few strangers.

Three degrees of separation was all that the vast majority of people had. And that's still true for many of us.

As I've posted before, friends are the key to happiness and the best way to improve your life is through relationships.

None of this costs money. None of it is hard work. It can be as easy as sending an email.

And, studies show, it has a better chance of making you happy over the long run than $10,000.

Seriously, what the hell are you waiting for?

The three things to remember

  1. Make more friends. Time spent making friends has a higher happiness ROI than time spent making money.
  2. Make your friends happy. Friends becoming happy increases your chance of happiness by 45 percent.
  3. Introduce friends to friends. Keeping the network happy protects you against "infection" by unhappiness.

Next Steps:

  • How do you make more friends? Go here.
  • How do you make your friends happy? Go here.
  • How do you strengthen your network? Go here.
  • What's an easy daily ritual for achieving all these things? Go here.

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