Six Degrees of Separation

August 29th, 2011

The idea of six degrees of separation is that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet by a chain of no more than five acquaintances. In 1967 the American sociologist Stanley Milgram created a test called “The small-world problem.” He randomly selected people in the mid-West to send packages to a stranger in Massachusetts. They were told only the recipient’s name, occupation and general location. They were instructed to send the package to someone they knew only on a first name basis, who would then send it on to another, and so on until the package finally got to the recipient. While it was expected that the chain would be at least 100 people long, Milgram actually found that the range was from 2 to 10, with 5 being the average. His study inspired the phrase, “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Various forms of the theory have been tested and confirmed in the decades since. Most recently, Microsoft analyzed 30 billion Instant Messenger conversations in one month in 2006. They claim that they captured about half of the whole world’s IM communication for that month. They confirmed that the average chain of connection between IM users was 6.6. Yahoo and Facebook are now creating their own test of the theory.

The Kevin Bacon version of the experiment shows that all actors are connected to Kevin Bacon by an average of less than 3 connections. It turns out Bacon isn’t even the most connected actor. That award goes to Rod Steiger. By virtue of his five marriages, Steiger might invite a new version of the game to see how many marriages each couple is separated from every other couple. The mind boggles.

It’s a small world, but as comedian Steven Wright said, “I wouldn’t want to paint it.”

You can do your own Six Degrees of Separation exercise. When you’re at a party or work function, strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know, and find out how many degrees of separation there are between you. Ask questions about where they live, where they exercise, hair dressers, doctors, schools, what town they grew up in etc until you find a common acquaintance.

The idea of six degrees of separation is incredibly empowering. That elusive answer you’ve been looking for, the guidance, connection, support, inspiration, are all closer to you than you imagine. Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone and connect with someone new or some new place just to remind yourself that you live in an awesome universe that is open and generous, and that sometimes strangers or unlikely acquaintances bring you surprising gifts. There is enormous value in connecting with a diverse group of people and travelling to new places. It expands you and your experience of life. It reminds you that you live in a small but miraculous world and there is always more to learn.

Six degrees of separation is also motivating. If you understand the power you have to influence others, you can choose what you want to share. Because studies now show that happiness is literally contagious across your extended network, up to three degrees of separation. One study showed that if you are happy, your friends are 25% more likely to be happy as a result and your friends’ friends are 10% more likely to be happy even if they don’t even know you. So, given that we are all connected by six degrees of separation and happiness reaches across three degrees of separation, two people at opposite ends of a social network should be able to pass happiness back and forth among the network like a vibrating chain. Choose to share happiness and optimism. Spread it like a virus for good.

Interconnectedness is not just a human experience. David Lusseau, from the University of Aberdeen, UK, performed a similar experiment on 130 dolphins living off the coast of Svotland. He found that it takes an average of just 3.9 steps to link any two dolphins by the shortest possible route through mutual flipper friends. This is a good reminder that the six degrees of separation is not just about linking humans. All beings are intimately related.

The notion of six degrees of separation reminds us of one of the fundamental laws of the universe and a profoundly spiritual truth. We are ALL connected and intimately related to each other. This is the foundation for compassion, morality, gratitude, wonder, vision, the law of attraction, paying kindness forward and so much more. This week I will write each day on different aspects of six degrees of separation, including the gift of “weak” connections, the effect of the parts on the whole, the need to reconnect widely and culminating in an article on 360 degrees of connection.

Swami Vivekananda, the 19th century mystic credited with bringing Hindu philosophy to the west offers the perfect summary of the theme,

All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.

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  1. Great article, Ian!  I’m looking forward to the follow up articles on this topic!

  2. Anonymous says:

    so, do you mean that some illiterate Chinese 90 year old is connected with,say, Barack Obama by no more than 6 common acquaintances? Or, for example, a 3 year old Papuan is connected with Queen Elizabeth II with through 6 people? Or there’s some age limit to be applied to this theory?

  3. ian says:

    thats the theory. The next door neighbor of the illiterate Chinese 90 year old may be a globe trotting socialite. No age limit

  4. Classic NYer says:

    You know, my ex husband was like that. Almost literally everybody that I knew, he was connected to through six degrees or fewer of separation. The strangest was when I took him to a family reunion and one of my uncles was his high school physics teacher. It was weird.

  5. Minsie says:

    Same experience for me, Classic NYer. At my 70th birthday a couple of years ago, I had invited about 75 friends, many of whom didn’t know each other. It was amazing how many spent several happy hours connecting!

  6. [...] It doesn’t have to be this way. There are too many opportunities for the joy of connection to sleep through life in a cocoon of self imposed isolation. Connections are powerful. Sometimes you have to search out the people you need at different points in your life. Close friends, who know and understand you, can challenge you and give honest feedback. They truly care for your well being, as you care for theirs. However, make time for new friends as well, and acquaintances who can push and expand your perspective. They help you to see life in new ways. This is part two in a series on Six Degrees of Separation. [...]

  7. [...] some of its resources. Depth and generosity are important balancing energies. The same is true for six degrees of separation. The idea of six degrees of separation and weak ties are important in terms of expanding our [...]

  8. Barbara Walters says:

    Just went to my uncle’s 80th birthday. He had a daughter (my cousin) that I had never met and she lives in the same state as  my sister (her cousin) whom she had never met.  We all connected at the party, strangers yet family. How crazy is that?

  9. ian says:

    Awesome- LOVE those situations.

  10. Found you via Twitter. Glad I did. I love the idea that happiness is contagious and how 6 degrees of separation works into that.

  11. I like this post.  You make a case for awareness that our behavior can mean more than just what occurs in the immediate.  There can be a ripple effect.  Everyone  is important in this theory as each can impact the world for the better or detrimentally.  I have the Dalai Lama quotes going up on my blog all the time and he is so often preaching kindness.  He asks us to use as a criteria for our actions, Is it kind?  Another related question from  my colleague, Charlton Hall is, Is it healthy?
    It doesn’t hurt to ask oneself these questions before taking a debatable action and can be interesting to do.
    I have written 2 posts myself that are related to your post, titles, The Butterfly Effect and the other is Paying It Forward and Benefactors.

  12. ian says:

    thx Paula. I like your questions. I sometimes ask “Is it empowering?” which is likely similar to Is it healthy? Also Is it inclusive? Ie does it include as many people, perspectives and possibilities as possible.
    Nice to hear from you. I just spent some time on you blog and enjoyed the feel.

  13. Yvonne says:

    I have been living in NZ for the past couple of years and they have a mobile network called 2 degrees as Kiwis may be separated by only two- love this post!! 

  14. ian says:

    thats awesome Yvonne.I lived in NZ a few years back and can believe the 2 degrees. Glad to be connected with you.

  15. Thanks for the reminder of how beautifully woven together we all are. It also provides great understanding about how the Universal Law of Receiving works… we can absolutely give to anyone and receive our good because of a connection of a connection of a connection!! I look forward to reading your other articles on the topic.

  16. [...] are more connected globally than at any time in humanity’s history. In addition the idea of six degrees of separation is that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet by a chain of no [...]

  17. Sometimes when we are trying to accomplish something there is a sense that an opportunity will come at some time.  With the idea of “6 Degrees of Separation” we could be so close to an opportunity that could change the course of our lives.  These opportunities are not going to drop out of the sky but they are going to come through the help of an individual.  It is definitely refreshing to know how close we are to the help or inspiration we will need at some point.  I know for myself I have to learn to be open to these opportunities because obviously they could be all around us.  We just have to be open to it.   

  18. Mary says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve researched a lot on happiness but this is the first time I come across this study. Awesome post!

  19. This is an interesting article, and an important message. It triggers two thoughts for me: (1) we have have some responsibility on how we influence those around us with our stance, and we need to chose responsibly, and (2) reaching out to others is energizing and rewarding when we approach it with openness and honest curiosity.

  20. Anjana says:

    I am so glad that I am connected this way Ian:)
    loads of love and happiness