Watch Who You Surround Yourself With
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” — Jim Rohn
The way children learn their native languages is truly an amazing process. Before even beginning school and receiving formal education, toddlers are able to learn their first language by simply interacting with those around them. This is an innate and natural process, one that babies are born knowing how to do. Even for those learning a foreign language after childhood, traveling to a place where the language is spoken and immersing oneself in that environment is an incredibly effective way to learn the language, as it mimics the way children learn languages.
If surrounding ourselves with certain people is powerful enough to teach us a new language, then what else can it teach us? How else does it influence us? What is the extent of the power it has on us?
Human beings are social creatures, and as such, we subconsciously (and consciously) adopt the behaviors, beliefs, and personalities of those we surround ourselves with.
Of course, many of us know this intuitively, but just to remove any lingering doubts, I will discuss a series of fascinating studies illustrating this point.
The studies were conducted by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, who were interested in the effects of social networks. The first study focused on the obesity epidemic. Christakis and Fowler wanted to examine if the obesity epidemic was truly an epidemic, in that it can spread from person to person.
By using data from the Framingham Heart Study, which “evaluated a densely interconnected social network of 12,067 people assessed repeatedly from 1971 to 2003”, Christakis and Fowler examined if “weight gain in one person was associated with weight gain in his or her friends”.
After analyzing their results, they found that a person with an obese friend had a 45% higher risk of obesity. If the person had a friend of a friend who was obese, the person’s risk of obesity was 20% higher. And if the person had a friend of a friend of a friend who was obese, the person’s risk of obesity was 10% higher.
While there is more than one reason to why the results are the way they are, Christakis and Fowler found strong evidence for what they call “induction”, or how having an obese friend can directly influence you to become obese yourself. One mechanism from which this works is adopting the bad behaviors of your friend. If your friend likes to go out for “muffins and beer”, which Christakis uses as an example, and you join in, then you have just adopted a behavior that increases the likelihood of you becoming obese. Another example is if your friend doesn’t exercise and prefers to stay home and play video games instead. If you adopt that behavior (friends often adopt each others’ behaviors) then you have just increased your probability of obesity.
Another mechanism is that of social norms. If your friends are obese, that can influence your perception of what an acceptable body weight is, and you will be less likely to exercise and eat healthy to maintain an actually healthy body weight.
Christakis and Fowler used the Framingham Heart Study to examine if the effects of social networks also applied to smoking rates. The results from their study was astonishing. They found that if a person’s spouse stopped smoking, that person’s chance of smoking decreased by 67%. If a person’s friend stopped smoking, then that person’s chance of smoking decreased by 36%. And if a sibling stopped smoking, the chance of smoking would decrease by 25%. Likewise, they also found if a subject had a close contact who smoked, the subject’s risk of smoking was 61% higher. For a contact’s contact, the risk of smoking was 29% higher, and for a contact’s contact’s contact, the risk of smoking was 11% higher.
The pair of researchers also did similar studies on drinking, voting, divorce, altruism, and happiness, showing how the influence of our social networks affect a wide variety of our behaviors. The lesson from the studies was clear, the people around us have a strong effect on who we are, what we believe in, and how we behave.
Now that we have evidence to back up what we know intuitively, that the people we surround ourselves with have a powerful influence on us, what should we do with this knowledge?
Because we adopt the behaviors, beliefs, and personalities of those around us, we should surround ourselves with people who have qualities we want for ourselves, and we should avoid people with qualities we do not want for ourselves.
For example, if you want to be fit and healthy, surround yourself with fit and healthy people. Likely, they often work out and eat healthy, encouraging you to embrace these good habits as well. Likewise, if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, get to know (or read biographies of) successful entrepreneurs. Learn what helped them succeed and pick up on the habits that helped them on their journey. And if you want to be happy, spend more time with happy people. You don’t need Christakis and Fowler to show you that happiness is contagious, although their happiness study did prove it, go try it out and see for yourself.
And avoid people with qualities you don’t want for yourself. If you don’t want to be a smoker, don’t hang out with smokers. Not only is their second hand smoke bad for you, but you will be more likely to smoke to fit in with your friends. If you don’t want to be a divorcee, take a look at your social network. Although sometimes there are genuine and healthy reasons for a divorce, if the people around you are frequently divorcing then maybe there’s something wrong with how your social circle approach relationships. Get to know people who practice healthier relationship habits instead. And if you don’t want to be negative and cynical, avoid people who are negative and cynical. Once again, emotions are contagious, and negativity and cynicism are incredibly unhealthy attitudes that will not uplift you nor serve you any good.
Watch who you surround yourself with, they will shape who you are and who you will become.
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