Friday, December 11, 2009

Real social networks

A new book Connected: The Surprising Poer of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009, Little, Brown, and Co) has some important ideas for social change organizations. Create networks! If you really want to bring about change, don't just send out information in the form of newsletters, web sites, or magazines, create networks! You've probably heard something about the ideas of Christakis and Fowler — the news stories announce the fact that if your friend loses weight, you are more likely to lose weight. If your friend's friend is happy, you are more likely to be happy. In other words, emotions and actions spread. As I've said for many years (I heard it from someone and I like it) we become like the people we hang around. When I was a community college administrator I was a much stuffier person than when I was hanging around with faculty. I always used this as cautionary advice to people, telling them to be careful who they hung around with.

But it's just as important for social groups to understand. If you want people to behave differently, form groups and work with the leaders of the groups. If you want people to be more altruistic, select an altristic person as leader and give him or her information about the importance of altruism. If you want people to act more sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint, form a group and encourage the members to bring about changes. They are more likely to do this when they talk about the changes in their group than if you just give them their information on an individual basis.

What this says to me is that simplicity circles are very important! People are much more likely to live simply if they are in a simplicity group. Further, the effect will be even wider because each of these people is a member of other groups and they will affect their members.

We've always known that there are certain things that happen more efficiently if people act together. The authors use the example of putting out a fire. If you have people running to a river and carrying back buckets of water to a burning house, they are not as effective as the group that forms a line and passes the water along.

Further, it's clear that cooeration is part of our nature and has resulted at least in part, from evolution. There are just certain things done better if done with others — like fighting wild animals or predatory groups.

But we have forgotten all of this in the US. Our ultra individualistic tendencies have made us ignore the importance of groups. Now happiness research is showing that people who have strong social ties are both happier and healthier. Again, it seems like common sense, but we don't seem to pay attention to things in this culture until the academic researchers pronounce that something is so. The true test is that we must begin to act on this knowldege by not only helping to form social networks but by creating a culture that brings people together. We need more public spaces and festivals as well as shorter working hours and less commuting in private cars. We need to quit encouraging competition and making rich people into celebrities. The best thing we can do is create wealth equality, because inequality encourages people to be out for themselves and to put greed ahead of caring.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama and Hope

A smile, a hello, and the promise of Obama's new way.

The research is pouring in! We're born to connect. A new book, Born to Be Good by Dacher Keltner focuses on the importance of such things as smiles, the importance of making contact. It reminds me on this day, the eve of Obama's inauguration, that I originally committed to him on the basis of his smile. It was, and still is, real. No phoney smiles for him. It makes you realize how much phoney emotion we're surrounded by, from politicians to commericials. But Obama truly connects.

I was also excited by a story on the Huffington Post that told about the efforts of MeetUp and Huffington Post to get people at the inauguration to say hello. They handed out name tags and encouraged people to greet each other. It reminds me our our Phinney EcoVillage project, the "stop and chat" campaign to encourage people to get to know their neighbors. Recent research shows that when your neighbor is happy, you are affected by that. It makes you happier too. And how else is that communicated? By stopping, chatting, smiling, and laughing!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Studs Terkel on community and the Depression

In an interview, not long before his death at 96, Studs Terkel had some advice for how we can cope with our crumbling economy:

"The lessons of the Great Depression? Don’t blame yourself. Turn to others. Take part in the community. The big boys are not that bright.

Hope dies last—“La esperanza muere Ășltima.” Without hope, you can’t make it. And so long as we have that hope, we’ll be okay. Once you become active helping others, you feel alive. You don’t feel, “It’s my fault.” You become a different person. And others are changed, too."
Enough said.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Community equals long life

What would Reagan say?
When Russia switched from a communist economy to a capitalist free market economy, life expectancy for men dropped from 67 to 60. A similar drop occurred in most of the former Soviet countries, a new study says:

There were a few exceptions where this didn't happen Poland and the Czech Republic. What was the difference? Social support.

"The authors suggest that the existence of trade unions, churches, sports, political organizations and other social organizations played a significant role in cushioning adults’ stress during the transitions.

“ ‘In countries in which more than 45 percent of the population was a member of a social organization, mass privatization had no significant adverse association with mortality rates,’ the report said."

As we face the traumas of our economy, we need to make sure there is this kind of support. We need to create community to help people weather the storm. I’ve actually had people say to me that the happiest time of their lives was during the Depression. Why? Because people helped each other out.

In those days, probably a lot of people belonged to various social groups, particularly churches. People got together because that’s all there was to do! But today participation in social groups is down, as we were shown by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. (Sure we’re still bowling, but not in leagues!)

What can replace this decline social support? The new localization. All over the country people are building community in their neighborhoods. For instance, in our neighborhood in Seattle that we call Phinney Ecovillage ( we have all sorts of groups: We have a climate change group, a democracy conversations group, a neighborhood council, and of course a simplicity circle. These kinds of groups help support the projects to encourage people to shop locally and eat local food. You’re much more likely to support local businesses if you know your neighbors, because you care more about your neighborhood.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


A Jan 6th column by NYTimes Clyde Haberman
calls for careful reflection as we move into our new administration. Haste in decision making has given us too many disasters, like the USA Patriot Act, to name a big one.
This is where we, the citizens, come in. We must come together for deliberation. Try something my husband I have done: "News Night." Every week we came together with friends to talk about something they had read in the news that week.
We all left those sessions having learned a lot from each other and having clarified our own views. But the most important thing was that brand new ideas emerged each week, ideas we would never have produced on our own. And most important of all, it was fun!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Obama and Conversation

In a recent New York Times article
a friend recalled some Obama advice when he visited New York after Obama was a student at Columbia.

"Mr. Ramos visited Mr. Obama in New York City in the early 1980s after Mr. Obama had graduated from Columbia University.

“I was just so blown away by New York, so intimidated,” Mr. Ramos recalled. “And he said to me, ‘Mike, don’t worry. New Yorkers are just like everybody else — they appreciate a kind gesture and a thoughtful response.’ ”

This just about sums it up! This is what should lie at the heart of all of our conversation: a kind gesture and a thoughtful response.
Those of us involved in social change should always remember this, or we just drive people away.