Ever since I read Blink, I’ve been a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. After wanting to read Outliers for a long time, I finally got my hands on it last week. The book begins with an interesting reference to a town called Roseto in Pennsylvania, U.S. The residents of this town, all migrants from the village of Roseto Valfortore in Italy, immigrated to Pennsylvania between 1882 to 1894, working in the local slate quarries.
In the 1950s, a physician named Stewart Wolf heard something interesting about the Rosetans; a local doctor mentioned to him that in the two decades of his practice, he had rarely found any patients from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease. At that time, heart disease was one of the leading causes of death in men under the age of 65 in the U.S., so Dr. Wolf found this fascinating.
Digging deeper, he uncovered some strange statistics. The town of Roseto had no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction and very little crime. Even though their eating habits were unhealthy and many of them were even obese, the death rate from heart disease among men over 65 was three times lower than the neighboring villages and half the average rate prevalent in the country.
After much research, Dr. Wolf found the answer: it was the sense of community that prevailed in this little village. The tight-knit community of Rosetans would often visit each other or just stop to chat with one another on the streets. Three generations of family often lived in the same home and 22 civic organizations existed in this town with a population of less than 2,000 people. The answer to their healthy and happy lifestyle lay not in genes, eating habits, geographic location or even exercise but in the community they had built for themselves in the mid-1900s.
But what does this have to do with social media? As I was reading this, I wondered if social media, could, in any way, make us healthier or at least happier? (The assumption being that we indulge in moderation.) This is a complex research question and I agree, the sense of community the Rosetans created through face-to-face communication, cannot be compared to engaging virtually on social networks.
But some similarities do exist. For one, doesn’t social media lead us to, well, just be more social? Don’t social networks spark more conversation between us? Don’t we stop by to have brief (140-word) conversations with our community of followers on Twitter? Without limiting our interaction to geographic location, social networks can be a great way (especially for immigrant communities) to keep in touch with family and friends, making them, perhaps, feel less isolated.
As I was pondering this question, I came across Jim Stolze’s Virtual Happiness Project which studies the relationship between the social aspects of the Web and happiness. According to his experiments, sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube “give people a sense of belonging and community, which is a fundamental piece of our well-being.”
Of course, there are studies that suggest otherwise. There have been many studies about how social networks lead to addiction, even isolation, as virtual interactions replace “real” ones and how we are becoming increasingly dependent on the Web (a subject I will tackle in another blog post.) Yet, I don’t think it would be illogical to assume that the sense of community we build from engaging in social networks probably does contribute, even if in a small way, to our well-being. After all, don’t we all feel happy when our community of friends on Facebook wishes us on our birthday or when we get in touch with a long-lost school friend we were once close to?
I would love to hear about your own experiences. Do you think social media or specifically, social networks, have contributed to making you a happier person? Do you know of any other studies that have measured this correlation?