The Hard Facts: Working Hard or Hardly Working

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Individuals report a fall in their happiness when they lose a job, but they report a smaller fall when they are surrounded by unemployed peers, an effect called the ‘social norm.’ … When unemployment increases, the unemployed are happier and they reduce their search effort.”  (The World Bank, “Can Subjective Well-Being Predict Unemployment Length?” May, 2010)

Though things seem to be slowly turning around, here’s one fact about unemployment: According to the New York Times’ Economix Blog, “the average length of time the jobless have been out of work [reached] 31.2 weeks in March. That’s the longest average jobless period since the government began collecting such data in 1948.” Upon reading this, my initial thought was that friends must be more important than ever.  When you’re struggling, career or otherwise, you need a shoulder and all that. Plus, as was pointed out when I mentioned the link between friendship and finances, more friends means more networking connections, which can lead to more job opportunities. Once again, BFFs prevail!

Well, maybe. When all your friends are employed, this theory is peachy keen. But what happens when you and your friends are jobless? Then things get dicey. According to this World Bank study, you’ll have a less significant decline in happiness if your friends are in the fray with you. Less unhappiness is good. Advantage, friends. But, “if a relevant other [read: friend] is also jobless, than both individuals search with less intensity.” That’s not so good.

I guess it makes perfect sense. There’s strength in numbers. If your friends are unemployed, you don’t feel alone. The urgency to find a job is less because, well, everybody’s in the same boat. And if your friends can’t find a paying gig, how will you? It’s easier to settle into the new, albeit unfortunate, situation when you’ve got company. I know if I were the only person I knew who was (involuntarily) unemployed, I’d make finding a job my job. But if my BFFs and I were all in it together, getting a job might feel out of my control. We might all just park it on the couch with TBS reruns and a bowl of Sun Chips.

It’s more evidence in a long line for the argument that when it comes to friendship, just about everything is contagious—weight gain, smoking, drinking, exhaustion, happiness. Now, unemployment.

So I have to wonder, what’s the lesson in all of this? To surround myself with people who are everything I want to be? If success and health are contagious, I want me some rich and stunning friends. Of course, there’s a strong case to be made for befriending different types of people. But then, happiness and well-being come in all different forms. Maybe it’s just avoiding the Debbie Downers.  But then, Debbie needs friends too. Otherwise, how will she get out of the dumps?

See, I’m conflicted. What do you take from the idea that much of our lives are dictated by our social networks? Do you buy it?

10 Comments

Filed under The Hard Facts

10 responses to “The Hard Facts: Working Hard or Hardly Working

  1. Lisa Z

    I buy it, at least through the mid 20s. After that I think people are more secure in their characters and may be more resilient to peer influence when it comes to their core values, or at least that is my goal. I have found that friendship is less influential and more inspiring as I age. It is similar values that we can find common ground on, and the unique traits of others that we can admire and respect in friends.

  2. During the tech downturn of 2002ish, I found myself unemployed. As did many of my friends. And while it sucked to be out of work, it was awesome to be out of work together. We formed a club – Unemployed People Unite – and spent our days together. Mornings were for job applications, etc. Afternoons were for fun.

  3. I had a brief period where I was not working this spring and I was the only person in my group of friends not working, but I don’t think that made me pursue finding a job any more aggressively than I would have otherwise… maybe I would have felt like less of a Pariah if had been surrounded by unemployed friends, though. But since I live in a single income household, I was extremely motivated to find a new job stat… Maybe if I had a husband w/ an income I wouldn’t have felt that sense of panick, but who knows!

  4. Ris

    When I was unemployed and all of my friends had found jobs, I was DESPERATE to find work. I got up every morning when my employed roommate did and I spent all day looking for jobs. You know what, I found one pretty quickly. On the flip side, I have a friend who is unemployed, as are many people in his friend group. I wonder if he’s even looking. It sure doesn’t seem like it. Anyway, I think that it also depends on what kind of person you are but that in general, this probably is pretty true.

  5. I am older (40’s) and I dont care much what others are doing, but I think that it is a valid point that the more friends and networking your doing the better opportunity there is in finding a new job.

    Great post!

  6. Ana

    Hmmm. Interesting topic. I do know that unemployment can cause depression/anxiety enough to immobilize any job-hunting effort. If those feelings are prevented by having more unemployed friends around, maybe people will be MORE pro-active in their job search. Having friends around may also add structure to the day, so that if you have a coffee date or movie trip planned for the afternoon, you may be more motivated to “work” in the morning, instead of lazing around thinking you will “get to it”. ALSO friends COULD (though I don’t know if they DO) push each other to be more productive in their searching; when you are alone you can lose an entire day to laziness (and then you can lie about it to your friends & family, no i’ve never done this, why do you ask?)—someone watching over your shoulder may shame you into working.

  7. Like a few others said, I think age tempers this a little. Now that I’m in my 40’s, I don’t think it applies as much, but in the younger years? Definitely.

  8. I used to buy it, before marriage and family. My entire life was dictated by my friendships. I’ve moved beyond that, now it’s dictated by family. That’s not to say that my maternity leaves wouldn’t have been more enjoyable for example if my friends have been off at the same time. That would have rocked, but honestly, now I just need to make money to put food on the table. And all my friends work, and have personal financial goals. So maybe that fact actually strengthens your argument.

  9. The people who you are surrounded by significantly impacts how you act. Whether it’s friends, family, coworkers is irrelevant. Your environment affects you, and the people *in* your environment are a huge part of that. Just like there are larger cultural norms that affect behavior (i.e. I don’t walk around naked in my house when I have company), there are smaller cultural norms within social groups.

    http://change-is-possible.net/2010/04/21/conformity/

    http://change-is-possible.net/2010/06/01/what-is-normal/

  10. Pingback: The Hard Facts: Your Friends Might Not Be Making You Fat | MWF Seeking BFF

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