“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
– Jim Rohn
Attributed to Jim Rohn, the late rags to riches entrepreneur and motivational speaker, the concept is one of my favorites. Newer scientific studies are proving Mr. Rohn right; our health and happiness may be the average of the five people we spend the most time with. The studies take a look at our health, happiness, and social networks.
Health, Happiness, and Social Networks – The First Study:
A group of researchers assessed 12,067 people from the famous Framingham Heart Study examining clusters of obese participants and their relationship of weight gain with those around them and its dependence on their social network of friends, family members, and neighbors.1 In total, three generations of Framingham residents were included. They compared these results with health-related activities like smoking and performed a series of intense statistics – far too complicated for me to understand – to assess the effect of these social relationships on rates of obesity within the participants.
- Having an obese friend increased someone’s risk of obesity by 57%.
- A close friendship with someone who became obese increased one’s risk of obesity by 171%.
- The probability of becoming obese increased by 71% when a friend of the same sex became obese.
- No significant observation was seen between friends of the different sex, and males had a higher risk of spreading obesity between them than females.
- Much like friends, a sibling had a 40% chance of becoming obese after his or her sibling became obese. Also, much like friends, this link was stronger between same sex siblings (with sisters having a 67% risk and brothers a 44% risk). Opposite sex siblings did not have a higher risk.
- Married couples were met with a similar fate: a spouse was 37% more likely to become obese after their partner became obese.
- While friends and family members negatively affected weight, neighbors appeared to have no significant influence.
- Smoking did not appear to interact with obesity.
- Close geographic distance did not increase the effect of obesity.
Health, Happiness, and Social Networks – The Flip Side Study:
The same group published a similar study assessing the spread of happiness throughout social networks.2 The good news: people’s happiness spreads like a virus as well, though it traverses up to three degrees of separation – family members, friends, and friends’ friends. People who surround themselves with happy people are more likely to become happy in the future. Through some more fancy statistics, the authors suggest that the spread of happiness is more than just a tendency for happy people to associate with other happy people.
For instance, simply living within a mile of a happy friend may increase your chances of becoming happy by 25%. Spouses, siblings, and neighbors are no different. In fact, happiness traverses more social network layers than obesity by permeating throughout our neighborhoods, where obesity seems to stop.
The authors said it best:
“People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.”
Health, Happiness, and Social Networks – The Take Home Message:
The conclusions of these studies are clear: abandon your obese and unhappy friends and family members and divorce your husbands and wives the second they gain weight…
In all seriousness, these studies provide valuable insight and direction on navigating the behaviors of those around us, motivate us to surround ourselves with positive influences, and perhaps most importantly, prompt us to acknowledge and manage those negative influences that are often impossible to avoid. It cautions us to be careful of how we incorporate others’ behaviors, but is also a reminder to consider how our behaviors influence others.
If our social networks affect our health to such a large degree, this also suggests the importance of encouraging our close friends and family members to engage in healthy behaviors.
The point of this article, of course, is not to judge our friends and family. Yet, our time is limited and perhaps we should take what little time we have and surround ourselves with positive people – healthy, happy, and socially and morally positive. Clearly our weight and happiness are not the only health factors influenced by our social network.
When dealing with those friends who are not the healthiest and happiest, we should acknowledge that healthy behaviors can be addictive and gently nudge them in a healthier direction. Though, we have all had those friends that spew unstoppable negative influences, and if all else fails, consider the words of Homer Simpson:
How many other aspects of our life spread like an infectious virus throughout our social networks?
I would bet many, if not all. The good news is that this means positive aspects are infectious as well. It looks like Jim Rohn was right after all, which is good news for all of us since we are free to choose our friends. My grandfather taught me the importance of food and health, my brother taught me to question everything, which ultimately led to the creation of Misguided Medicine, and my father and many friends taught me the importance of irreverent humor. Roger Dickerman (pictured with me above) and I have spent countless hours bantering about how best to be healthy, ultimately leading to our podcast.
I feel as though I am at an extremely happy and healthy point in my life, and I certainly credit the positive friends and family members who have guided – in reality more often pushed – me in the right direction.
I hope you spend the majority of your time with happy and healthy people, as according to Mr. Rohn and some recent studies, you are much more like them than you think.
- Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. N. Engl. J. Med. 357, 370–9 (2007).
- Fowler, J. H. & Christakis, N. A. Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ 337, a2338 (2008).
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