Can your friends help you stick to your diet? Avoid bad habits? Even live longer? You probably know intuitively that your friends and family influence your lifestyle. A growing body of evidence draws strong connections between our social network and our health — for better or for worse.
A 2005 study by Flinders University in Australia found that people with a large network of friends outlived their counterparts by 22 percent. So how does your social life directly influence your health? We all know, for example, that we should eat nutrient dense foods and exercise regularly. But, whether our friends and family do these things could make the difference in whether we act on what we know. The truth is, your social life can affect you in both positive and negative ways.
The Ladder of Social Influence
David A. Asch, M.D., M.B.A., and Roy Rosin, M.B.A. published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, they argue that our interactions with people closest to us matter significantly more than our interactions with our doctors.
They write, “Convention has organized the process of health care into interactions between a clinician and a patient. But even patients with chronic illness may spend only a few hours a year with a physician, as compared with the thousands of waking hours when so much of what determines their health occurs out of clinicians’ reach.”
People may subconsciously copy the behavior of their peers, or they may explicitly encourage one another to take certain actions. For example, you may walk to lunch simply because that’s what your co-workers choose to do and you enjoy their company. Or, you might ask your spouse to remind you to hit the gym in the evening.
Asch and Rosin envision a ladder of social interaction. It begins at the bottom with activities done in private, like taking medication. For these, you might need to take actions like setting a reminder on your phone or wearable. The level of social interaction ranges up to the point where people incentivize and reward one another for their actions — such as in a company-wide weight loss program. In your life, you likely have points in between, where you can stop and notice how much various people are affecting your choices.
Mirroring the positive behavior of friends can bring about favorable results. Social networks have been shown to help people lose weight, exercise regularly, quit smoking, and live longer. I previously wrote about how healthy social interaction may help prevent cognitive diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Below are just a few examples of scientific evidence of positive social influences on health.
A 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine followed people for 32 years and observed whether they quit smoking. They concluded, “decisions to quit smoking are not made solely by isolated persons, but rather they reflect choices made by groups of people connected to each other both directly and indirectly at up to three degrees of separation.” In other words, even your friends’ friends’ friends make a difference!
A 2002 study from UCLA suggests that friendships among women can mitigate negative effects of stress. This idea builds upon previous beliefs that the body chooses either fight or flight in response to attack. The researchers found that, among women at least, there is another option. They say that, when a woman under stress turns toward caring for her friends or children, oxytocin counters stress and produces a calming effect.
Friends influence weight, too. One study found that, among people who wanted to lose weight, having thinner friends was linked with successful decreased BMI over the course of a year. Another study found that when people feel supported and inspired by friends or co-workers, they have a better chance of losing weight. US News and World Report also says that competition and group effort increase success in group weight loss challenges.
We can all probably admit to following a negative example set by a friend. Just like the positive influences, these may come across subtly or overtly. Studies have found that friends influence the risk of anything from obesity to suicide.
Huff Po reported on a study where, “Researchers discovered that when it came to resisting temptations — like eating chocolate — sometimes friends were more likely to become partners in crime as they decided to indulge together.”
A 2013 study even showed that diabetic patients were influenced by friends to ignore important treatment recommendations. A 2014 study illustrated how negative social interactions can lead to high blood pressure in middle age.
Occasionally, everyone has an extreme example of a bad influence. I wrote previously about “emotional vampires.” Do your best to limit interaction with those individuals who seem to suck all the positives out of your relationship.
The bottom line is this: do your best to surround yourself with positive influences! And don’t underestimate your potential to be a positive influence yourself. If you think someone in your life might be harming your health, talk to them about it or, if it’s practical, spend less time with them. Ultimately your health is your responsibility, but how you structure your social life can play a big role.
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