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.