You’re NOT The Average Of The Five People You Surround Yourself With

You’ve probably heard it more times than you can count. “You’re the average of the five people spend the most time with,” a quote attributed most often to motivational speaker Jim Rohn. There’s also the “show me your friends and I’ll show you your future” derivative.

Whichever you’ve heard, the intent is the same. Audit the people around you. Make sure that you’re spending time with people who are in line with what you want for your own life (preferably people “better” than you so it raises your average). It’s compelling. It’s provocative.

And it isn’t true.

At least not in the way that you think. I’ve been researching the science of social networks for my newest book, and I found that you are indeed influenced by the people around you. But that influence doesn’t stop anywhere near the five people you spend the most time with. It’s far more dispersed and research suggests it includes people you haven’t even met yet.

The first major study on the breadth of social influence was conducted by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. The duo was examined the data set from the Framingham Heart Study, one of the largest and longest running health studies ever, when they realized that it covered more than just the heart health of the participants. They were studied for all sorts of medical conditions, and during interviews they were probed with all sorts of demographic questions, including questions about family members and friends.

So they started analyzing the data to see what the effects of family members and friends was on something fairly easy and objective: obesity. According to their results, if a friend of yours becomes obese, you yourself are 45 percent more likely than chance to gain weight over the next two to four years. More surprisingly, however, Christakis and Fowler found that if a friend of your friend becomes obese, your likelihood of gaining weight increases by about 20 percent — even if you don’t know that friend of a friend. The effect continues one more person out. If a friend of the friend of your friend develops obesity, you are still 10 percent more likely than random chance to gain weight as well.

Your friends make you fat, but so do their friends, and so do their friends of friends.

Because they had data spanning over three decades, they were able to show a real cause-and-effect relationship between individual friends (and friends of friends) and weight gains. While the researchers looked for a variety of explanations, the most likely one appears to be norms. If your friend is obese or a friend of a friend is obese, that changes your perception of what is an acceptable body size and your behavior changes accordingly.

And it doesn’t stop at obesity. In a follow-up study, Christakis and Fowler found something similar with smoking rates. Using the same social network data they had borrowed from the Framingham Heart Study, they found that if your friend smokes, you are 61 percent more likely to be a smoker yourself. If a friend of your friend smokes, you are still 29 percent more likely to smoke. And for a friend of a friend, the likelihood is 11 percent. Perhaps the most telling study was of happiness. The two researchers found that happy friends make you happier — no surprise there.But if your friend of a friend of a friend is happy with their life, then you have a 6 percent greater likelihood of being happy yourself. Now six percent might not seem like much, but consider that other studies suggest that if I gave you a $10,000 raise, that would only trigger about a 2 percent increase in your happiness.

Your friends really are your future. And the implication is that you don’t just need to be more deliberate about who you’re spending the most time with. You need to be examining your entire network and its influence on your life. You need to know where you sit inside the larger network of your social community.

You’re not the average of the FIVE people you surround with. It’s way bigger than that. You’re the average of all the people who surround you. So take a look around and make sure you’re in the right surroundings.

Like This Idea?

There’s a host of similar ideas on growing and strenghtening your network in my newbook Friend of a Friend. Learn an authentic, non-sleazy way to make new connections and build old relationships. Click here to learn more.