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Murray: Diversity in friendships can save the world

By Leah Murray - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Aug 10, 2022

Photo supplied, Weber State University

Leah Murray

This month, Nature published a study that analyzed the Facebook friendships of 72 million people, and what they found confirmed something social science has known for a long time: Humans are social animals whose success and happiness are built on their communities. The study found that poor children who have wealthy friends increase their future incomes by 20%. The researchers called it “economic connectedness” and found that it had a stronger effect than anything else, including school, family, job availability and the community’s racial composition.

As it turns out, the relationships you have affect the course of your life. The people you know can open doors. One of the things we know about Utah is that our economy seems to operate on a different path than the rest of the country. We don’t feel recessions as much, and we bounce back from them quicker; we rebounded from COVID lockdowns better than much of the country. I think this recent study gives a possible explanation why: Utah is a place where cross-class friendships are common. That is, we’re economically connected.

This concept might be difficult for many Americans to digest because we’re taught that the individual can do anything. Our whole system is designed to see ourselves as individual actors who rise and fall on our own merits, but this thought leads to many of the issues we have today. For years I’ve reminded my students that, because they live in communities, they have to “love thy political neighbor.” I work very hard with them to build political connectedness. I’m so persistent about this that a student actually made me an image of that saying, which now hangs in my office. I also harass my colleagues about it by showing data of our political selves in group meetings. I once told a group, “Please, for the love of all that is holy, go out and find a conservative friend and bring them to the next meeting.”

What I found so compelling in this study is that it proved it was not enough to just meet someone who is in a different class from you — you have to have relationships. The study confirmed my long-held belief that you must love your neighbor in all their interesting differences. It’s not enough to be in a meeting with someone who is different; you need to be friends with them. You need relationships with people who are part of different religions, political parties and economic classes.

I’ve put this belief into practice in my private life. In June, I spent a week at Boy Scout Camp Hunt with nine young men aged 12-16 as they earned merit badges. Seven are my troop and two were their camp friends, older Boy Scouts assigned to them for the duration of camp. The last night we were there, I left the campfire and lay down in my tent listening to the conversation among these boys. In many ways, they were similar, all Boy Scouts close in age. But they were also very different, from various parts of the country, with one coming from as far away as South Dakota. They were from different religions: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Catholic, Sikh, Buddhist, Lutheran. They played different sports, from cross country to soccer to basketball. They had the best conversation around that fire, building the kind of friendships that we need.

After reading the Nature study, I’m more convinced that friendship is how we save the world. In my professional life with my students and in my personal life with my son, I’m promoting building friendships across the deep chasms that divide us. I lean into the fact that humans are social creatures, so we just need a little work to figure out how to love each other. Your first step? Join a civic organization and attend regularly, making friends with people who are different from you.

Leah Murray is a Brady Distinguished Presidential Professor of Political Science and the academic director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University.

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