Have you heard the quote attributed to motivational speaker Jim Rohn: “You are the average of five people you spend the most time with”? “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future”.
Wherever it has come up, the intent is always the same: audit the people around you to ensure you’re spending time with people whose values align with those you have in mind for your own life (ideally those “better” than you to raise your average). Doing this exercise is both engaging and provocative!
But that isn’t true – at least not in the way that most of us assume. I have spent years conducting research into social networks for my latest book and have discovered that those around you indeed influence you, but their influence doesn’t end at those five people you spend the most time with; it extends far further into society and could include people you have yet to meet!
Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler conducted the inaugural comprehensive examination of social influence. To do this, they examined data from the Framingham Heart Study – one of the longest-running health studies ever – which covered much more than just heart health; participants were observed for various medical conditions and interviewed in depth regarding family members and friends, etc.
Christakis and Fowler researched to understand what effect family members and friends had on something fairly easily measurable and objective: obesity. According to their results, if one of your friends becomes obese, your likelihood of weight gain increases 45 per cent over two to four years compared with random chance; more surprising still was Christakis and Fowler’s finding that if another friend of your friend becomes obese, your likelihood increases by an astonishing 20 per cent — even if that person wasn’t your personal friend! Furthermore, their impact continued even further – with another person affected — you are still 10 per cent more likely than a random chance to gain weight over two to four years!
Your friends make you fat – but so can theirs, and theirs’ too!
By having data over three decades, they demonstrated an actual cause-and-effect relationship between individual friends (and friends of friends) and weight gains. While researchers examined a variety of explanations, norms appear most likely; when one friend becomes obese, or your perceptions about what constitutes acceptable body sizes change due to seeing another friend become obese, your behaviour changes accordingly.
Christakis and Fowler extended their research beyond obesity; in another follow-up study, they used the same social network data they had borrowed from Framingham Heart Study to find smoking rates were similarly linked with social networks; if one of your friends smokes, your chances of becoming one increase by 61%! If one of your friends smokes, your options are 29 per cent higher and 11 per cent greater if that friend smokes too. Perhaps the most telling study involved happiness. Researchers found that happy friends make you more comfortable – no surprise there. But, if one of your friends is satisfied with life, that increase jumps by 6 per cent; although this might seem minor, other studies indicate that even receiving a $10,000 raise would only result in 2 per cent greater happiness for yourself.
Your friends genuinely are your future, so you must be more thoughtful in selecting who to spend the most time with and assessing their influence on your life as a whole. In other words, understanding where you belong in terms of social communities is also crucial for future happiness.
Your average is much greater than just that of the five people you surround yourself with; it encompasses all those around you, and you should take time to ensure positive associations in your surroundings. 1. Unlocking the Potential of Social Networks.
Although popular wisdom suggests that we’re made up of the five people we spend the most time with, scientific research reveals a more nuanced picture. Social networks affect individuals beyond the immediate circle of friends they associate with. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler conducted a groundbreaking Framingham Heart Study-based study that demonstrated the profound ramifications of social connections on various aspects of our lives.
Obesity and Social Contagion
Christakis and Fowler’s research into obesity’s relation to social networks shed light on social contagion. According to their findings, when one friend becomes obese, your chances of weight gain increase by 45 per cent; unexpectedly, even someone not directly connected can have an impactful 20 per cent effect. The ripple effect can continue up to three degrees of separation, demonstrating how powerful social connections are.
The Role of Norms in Influencing Behavior
One of the primary factors affecting social contagion is social norms in a social group. Suppose someone in your network adopts specific behaviour or body size changes. In that case, your perception may shift significantly and cause you to unknowingly adapt your behaviour in line with prevailing norms, ultimately leading to changes in lifestyle and choices.
Smoking and Social Influence
Christakis and Fowler researched social networks’ influence on smoking behaviour. Their results indicated that having one smoking friend significantly increased an individual’s likelihood of adopting this habit by 61%; even having multiple friends increase your odds by significant margins.
Happiness Can Spread
Christakis and Fowler’s research demonstrated the contagious nature of social networks extends far beyond unhealthy behaviours – it can even spread happiness as quickly. Christakis and Fowler showed that having happy friends positively impacted an individual’s enjoyment by as much as 6 per cent; even the happiness of people you had never met directly affected it!
The Power of Positive Associations
Positive associations within social networks can bring joy and well-being. Being surrounded by optimistic individuals can foster a more optimistic perspective, improving mental health and overall life satisfaction.
Navigating the Complex Web of Social Influence
Social networks form an intricate web of influence. Every individual plays an essential part in shaping the behaviours, attitudes, and experiences of those within their immediate circle and beyond – an understanding this complexity can empower individuals to make conscious decisions regarding their environment.
Revamp of Five-Person Rule
Given the immense influence of social networks, it’s evident that being measured as the average of your five closest contacts may be too simplistic a measure. Instead, it is imperative to recognize that every interaction you have, no matter how indirect, contributes to your experience and influences your decisions.
Handling Negative Influences
Being mindful of the long-term impacts of social networks allows individuals to recognize any negative influences within them, such as harmful behaviours or norms perpetuated by others in your network that could negatively impact your well-being. Recognizing and responding appropriately to such effects is integral for personal growth and happiness.
Establish a Supportive Social Network
Fostering personal growth and success requires actively cultivating positive and supportive relationships. Surrounding yourself with people who share your aspirations and values can give encouragement, motivation, and a sense of belongingness that can aid personal development.
Harnessing Social Networks to Fuel Growth
Individuals should instead make use of social contagion to their advantage. People can speed up their growth and development by associating with those who embody their desired qualities and achievements.
Impact of Online Social Networks on Economic Performance
With the rise of social media and online communities, social networks’ reach has gone far beyond physical boundaries. Ideas, trends, and behaviours quickly spread globally, with virtual communication capabilities amplifying this process.
Influential individuals – be they celebrities or online personalities – wield enormous power to mould the behaviour and beliefs of their followers. Being aware of this potential power, influential figures must exercise responsibility by supporting positive values.
Social Change Through Collective Power of Societal Actors
Social networks can exert considerable societal influence. Movements, ideologies, and calls to action may gain support when supported by an expansive and interlinked network of like-minded people.
Accepting Social Connectedness
Humans are, by nature, social creatures, and our connections with others have an immense effect on our lives. By harnessing social connectedness for good, we can utilize its positive impacts to foster happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives – for ourselves, as individuals as well as in broader communities we belong to.