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If Divorce Is Contagious ... Are Other Issues, Too?

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Hayley Krischer: Set up the quarantines! New research says that a friend's divorce increases your own chances of splitting up by a whopping 147 percent. The reason? Apparently, people's feelings about their spouses rub off on each other within social groups. According to James Fowler, a social scientist who has conducted numerous studies on the topic, divorce can therefore be deemed a "social contagion."

For the record, I don't remember anyone else getting divorced before my split with my ex-husband four years ago. But according to Fowler, divorce's contagiousness is powerful. "Your friend's friend can affect you as well," he said in an interview on ABC News. "It's almost like a set of dominoes." A friend of a friend is 33 percent more likely to get a divorce just because you're getting one.

If divorce is so contagious, are other issues contagious as well? The answer is yes. We're familiar with this concept to some extent -- "birds of a feather"; "copycat" -- but clearly we haven't recognized the pervasive degree to which humans influence each other. 

According to Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, coauthors of "Connected," the list of social contagions is long. Here's how likely you are to "catch" these, for example: weight gain, 57 percent; loneliness, 52 percent; smoking, 36 percent; happiness, 9 percent; negativity, 7 percent.

If negativity is contagious, does that mean that a negative article can act as a social contagion? Case in point: In light of the recent New York Magazine cover story "I Love My Kids. I Hate My Life," more mothers have been talking about their parenting struggles. I'm one of them. After reading it, a few of my friends and I raised the great what-if question: "If you could do it all over again, would you still have kids?" Once the issue was on the table, most of us agreed that we're all in the same wobbly boat. 

Did the article prompt us to feel down about being mothers? Did our complaints rub off on each other? Or were these feelings already there?

Ironically, having babies is as contagious as resenting the babies you already have. If your sibling has a child, for example, you're 15 percent more likely to get pregnant yourself within a two-year time span, according to a Princeton study. 

I'm living proof of that, too. My husband (I'm remarried now) has two brothers. Each of their wives got pregnant within two months of my own pregnancy. We joke about our family looking like a daycare center, because three cousins were born a couple of months apart.

Maybe it was something in the water. Who knew that water could be so contagious?

next: Teaching Your Children Values through Volunteerism
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