How to Choose the Right People to Be in Your Life

Why this might be the most important skill you can learn — lessons from over a decade of self-experimentation

May Pang
May Pang
Feb 27 · 11 min read
Photo by fizkes

Play along with me—this question has two parts. Now, be honest:

  1. Consider the last time you were ecstatically happy (11/10 bliss) and when you were rock bottom sad (-20/10). Were either caused by a person or a lack of one?
  2. List five close friendships you’ve made in the last five years. Did you make it to five people?

I would be willing to bet all my Medium earnings that for the majority of people, the first answer is yes, and the second answer is no.

The truth is, our close relationships have a disproportionate effect on our lives for the amount of time we spend intentionally thinking about them. For most people, the closest relationships in their lives were arbitrarily chosen for them by their school system, their job, or the activities they happen to enjoy when they were teenagers. And they haven’t really thought about it since. They see the same people, hang out in the same places, and have the same conversations — on repeat.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing really. Allow me to reframe it for you: It isn’t that something is wrong — it’s that it could be exponentially better. Having long-lasting friendships is a wonderful thing. Not choosing them intentionally is a missed opportunity.

If someone offered a chance for you and a team of your choosing to go on a quest that had a prize of $10 million at the end, how carefully would you choose that team? You’d likely sit down and carefully analyze the most critical characteristics for your team to win the quest.

Well, the quest is called life, and the prize at the end is worth more than $10 million.

The Science of Choosing the Right People in Your Life

You’ve probably heard the quote — “You’re the average of the five people that you spend the most time with” — which is often attributed to self-help guru Jim Rohn.

The first time I heard this quote, my first thought was, “Oh yeah, and how do you measure that?!”

Well, I applied my scientific training to this question and set out to see if any studies showed how the people in your lives influenced your quality of life and specifically, in what measurable ways.

And, boy, were there a lot. Here are just a few examples:

Having obese friends (and even neighbors) significantly increases your chances of being obese yourself

A study conducted by Harvard University and the University of California of 12,067 people over 32 years old found that a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese.

Here’s the kicker — another study that reviewed 45 studies spanning several decades on the role of social networks found not only can your close friendships influence your weight but even the people that are geographically close to you, like your neighbors.

Please note that I don’t promote fat shaming of any kind. Weight is highly measurable, and so there are a lot of studies about the influence of social networks on weight.

Having happy friends makes you happier

A 20-year study of 4,739 individuals by Harvard University found that happy and unhappy people visibly cluster around each other and that a friend who lives within a mile of you becoming happy can increase your happiness by 25%. As with the other effects of social networks, these findings were consistent over time and effective to up to three degrees of separation. So, your friend and your friend’s friend and your friend’s friend’s friend could influence your happiness.

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Having the right relationships improves all aspects of your health

In her book “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond ,” Lydia Denworth states very few people understand that social relationships can have a broad-ranging effect on their health — changing everything from your cardiovascular system, your immune system, how you sleep, and your cognitive health.

Significantly, the effects are measurable over time. An 80-year-old Harvard study on health and adult development found that our relationships and, specifically, how happy we are in our relationships are a powerful predictor of our health and longevity — even more than social class, IQ, or even genes.

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” — Robert Waldinger (Director of Study)

As I said, you’re not going to die today if you don’t choose good friends, but you might simply be overweight, poorer, less happy, less healthy, and die younger. Are you cool with that?

Created by the author

Jokes aside, I’m not suggesting you only make friends that are rich, successful, and slim. However, I am suggesting you take the time to consciously and intentionally choose the people you spend time with — because it’ll change your life.

How do I know? Well, I’ve experimented with making friends a lot.

The Choosing Exercise

I ventured away from my family when I was 17, not realizing my life would be one grand, nomadic adventure. Since then, I’ve lived in multiple continents and dozens of cities. After my first few bouts of extreme loneliness and realizing my closest friends were at least 30 hours and $2,000 away, I decided to try to consistently choose meaningful relationships instead of merely waiting for them to happen to me.

The exercise involved both paying attention to the relationships that already existed in my life, as well as the new ones I wanted to create. Here’s my process:

1. Log your time

Every day at the end of the day, I’d write down anyone I spent more than an hour with that day. It doesn’t have to be someone who is a friend (yet) — it could be your university tutor, your cleaning lady, or the barista you make small talk with at the coffee house every day. I also recorded solo time. Do this for at least two weeks to get a good cross section of your life.

2. Log your feelings

Record how that interaction made you feel. Did you feel energized or drained or neutral? A simple 1-5 scale will work. Be descriptive about the feeling — did that person make you feel defensive? Anxious? Empowered? Use as many words as possible, and don’t overthink it.

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3. Know thyself

This is the most crucial step in the process. It’s important to understand what makes you happy is different from what makes someone else happy. Figure out what that is for you.

From Steps 1 and 2, identify what it is specifically that makes you feel good or bad in those interactions. See if the same words come up across multiple interactions. List your must-haves and cannot-haves.

For example, my top three must-haves are intention, kindness, and effort. And my cannot-have is inconsistency.

4. Choose intentionally

Compare the qualities you identified in Step 3 with the people you spend time with. Are you investing most of your time in the people who meet your emotional needs? Or is your energy being wasted on those who only return it with negativity?

“It is better to be alone than in bad company.” — George Washington

One strange irony I discovered while performing this exercise was that we tend to take our best relationships for granted the most.

Think about it — when life gets busy, is it often your spouse that gets dropped first because you know they love you and will forgive you? On a bad day, are you cranky to your spouse and on your best behavior with the barista? I now save my best self for the people who matter most.

5. Break up with toxic relationships

This is one of the hardest steps. It’s heartbreaking to let go of a long history, even though we’ve known for some time the friendship no longer serves us. While it may be true you had a great friendship in the past, you might have grown in different directions now. Be grateful for the past, and let it go.

Here’s a useful tip. Every time I struggled with this, I remind myself emotional energy is a finite source. Any energy you’re investing into a negative relationship is energy you’re not putting into a meaningful one. I’d imagine that emotional energy was a currency (like money) and that I only had a certain budget. When I sat across from the person, I’d ask myself if I’d I be here if I had to pay $200 to spend time with this person? What if that meant I’d no longer have enough currency to spend time with my favorite person?

I very quickly realized I’d pay an infinite amount to spend time with my family, but I’d have an immediate, visceral reaction to paying any amount to spend time with certain people.

Created by the author

6. Make new friends

Consciously seek out the type of relationships you want. If you want to be an entrepreneur, go find a mastermind group. If you want to get outdoors more, go find a hiking group. This is one of the few things in life your 6-year-old self was better at doing than your 30-, 40-, or even 50-year-old self.

If you’ve forgotten how to initiate contact, I wrote another article on how to instantly create intimacy with anyone you meet.

Some Key Tips on Choosing Friends

Choose people who choose you back

I can’t stress the importance of this rule.

Yes, seek out people you aspire to be, but if they don’t reciprocate your efforts, move on. Anyone who has experienced unrequited love understands this — there are some things no amount of intention, effort, or desire on your part can change. It is the same with friendships. If they don’t choose you as a friend, it won’t matter how hard you try. See my other article about why it’s so important only to choose people who choose you back.

Choose authenticity

Trust is built when there are no hidden agendas. One of my close friends is 30 years older than me, and we have almost nothing in common. The beauty of our relationship is there’s no romantic agenda, and we don’t need each other to advance our careers or to look cool. We just genuinely want the other person to be happy.

Life is messy sometimes — you make stupid mistakes, you obsess over people who are clearly not worth it, you repeat destructive patterns, and there are days where you’re just inexplicably sad. The point is your journey is unique to you. Choose someone who’s willing to share the full spectrum of human experience with you and who also allows you to be the fullest expression of yourself.

Choose people that help you grow

No one achieves success of any kind alone. You need people who push you, and you need people who support you. Find friends that set the bar higher and are also your biggest fans.

If you have friends that are constantly jealous of your success or whose infinite pessimism gets you down, it’s time to reconsider if they’re really worth having in your life.

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

— Mark Twain

Choose people who are different than you

Creating diversity in my relationships has been one of the most enriching decisions I’ve ever made. It has taught me how to communicate differently and exposed me to things I wouldn’t normally seek out. Learn to see the world through a different lens. It’s just more fun that way.

Choose character over charisma

This has been one of the biggest takeaways after over a decade of building relationships. My younger self would always be drawn to the cool kids everyone wanted to hang out with — they’d make me laugh till I cried, and we’d party all night. Then, they’d disappear. Sometimes for weeks. They’d respond when it was convenient for them, not when I needed them to.

I quickly learned emotional safety is built on traits like consistency, kindness, and responsiveness instead of extroversion and adventurousness.

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Choose often

The silent killer in any relationship is complacency. For their sake and yours, be intentional about the energy and attention you bring each time you show up. To clarify, I’m not suggesting each person has to have all your must-haves — you might choose them just because they make you happy every time you see them. The point is to be clear on what that reason is for that person. It’ll simply make it easier to bring your best self.

How Did It Work Out?

I’ll start by saying it hasn’t been easy. Especially when I didn’t know myself very well. There are many times when it just felt so much easier to choose people because they’re convenient.

How do I know it was worth it?

Because I’m reminded of it every single day. I’m reminded of it every time I see the spare keys to their houses on my key chain or when a friend drives six hours just to hang out for a day or when a friend immediately reads every article as soon as it’s published or when life throws me a totally random curve ball befitting a Hollywood movie. The last scenario happened recently and inspired this article.

I’d never had to fall into my friend network before, but each person came forward and weaved a strand that provided me with a giant safety net. I knew then I’d done something right. I hope you, too, will realize your emotional energy is one of the most valuable currencies you have in life and start giving it only to the people who really deserve it.

Here’s the part I haven’t told you. It takes time. A lot of time. And good relationships are like compound interest — starting at 20 is exponentially better than starting at 50, even if you invest the same amount.

Start today — it’ll make all the difference.

“Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Disclosure: This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. These links make Better Humans a small amount of money, but more importantly, help us understand which books are popular with our readers.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer

May Pang

Written by

May Pang

Experiments in living intentionally and connecting deeply. Come play along with my experiments. I want to hear from you — Facebook — MojoMint

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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