Voodoo or science? Relationships can make you healthy, happy

Authored By Shelley Prevost

My friends run marathons, half-marathons, mud runs, 5Ks and 10Ks; they paddleboard, detox, cleanse and crunch.  I’m not fat or anything.  I just don’t prioritize exercise over other things in my life.  I have made a modicum of peace with this fact, but I still struggle with the belief that I can do more. 

If I’m being honest, I am really just an exercise-poser.  I talk about exercise to avoid the accountability of actually having to do it.  I am ashamed that I don’t exercise as much as I should and even more ashamed that I DON’T EVEN WANT TO.

My friends not only authentically endorse exercise as a “wonderful lifestyle choice that I should try,” but, for me, they are better evangelists for healthy living than anybody else could be.

Here’s why.

According to the long-standing Framingham Heart Study, “Good health is a product, in part, to your sheer proximity to other healthy people.”  This study found that obesity (and all its trappings-heart disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, etc.) broke out in clusters.  Fat and unhealthy people tended to cluster together, as did skinny and healthy people.  If a Framingham resident became obese, her friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese as well. 

It goes on.  A friend of a friend is 20 percent more likely to become obese. 

Still further.  A friend of a friend of a friend is 10 percent more likely to become obese if that three-times removed friend becomes obese. 

According to this study, even if you’ve never met, your boss’ husband’s mother can make you fat.  At least 10 percent more likely to become fat.

Although the Framingham study does not exonerate me from personal responsibility for my health, it does highlight something fairly intuitive-you value what those around you value.  Researchers like to call this “peer norming.”  I just call it “valuing the same things.”  We send and receive unconscious social cues referencing what normal behavior looks like.  We do this with eating habits and exercise, and we also do it with happiness.  In fact, the same data that demonstrates the contagion of healthy behaviors in the Framingham study was also used to codify how humans spread happiness-and even misery.   

If you are happy, your friend is 15 percent more likely to be happy.  Even a distant connection, a friend of a friend of a friend, is 6 percent more likely to be happy if you are happy.  

I’ll spare you all the statistics, but the point is this:  Who you spend the majority of your time with dramatically influences you.  Even someone you’ve never met influences your habits and your behaviors.

To better gauge your own happiness, look around.  Who do you see?  What do they value, and how do they respond to the world?  How you answer these questions will shed a bright, white light on who YOU are.  If you don’t like what you see, either change your friends or change how you engage with these people.  All the time, even when you don’t know it, you are either influencing others toward goodness or toward disintegration.  Choose goodness.

If your friends still suck, you may want to rethink that friend group.

At my office we talk about how quickly a meeting or conversation can devolve to the lowest common denominator: “We can only be as strong as our weakest link.”  Although I still believe that there is truth in that, I am also a believer in the power of one.  It takes one person to shift the energy and momentum in a room from dour and foolhardy to optimistic and bold.  One person has the power to affect at least 15 percent of the mood of everyone else in the room.  Whether it’s hard science or some type of voodoo energetics, there is a visceral power in one person deciding that he will be a positive and expansive force in the world.    

This is the power of relationships.

So, as it turns out, I’m a big, fat mooch.  I’m mooching off the healthy habits of my friends.  Because I’m friends with them, I’m much more likely to stay lean and healthy myself.  But here’s the beauty of friendship-because of cultivating my own happiness habits, they’re healthier, too, emotionally at least.  Somewhere in that vortex of human connection, we are all a little better off in the long run. 

Dr. Shelley Prevost is a positive psychologist. She is a partner and director of happiness at Lamp Post Group.  Follow her on Twitter @thegladlab. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.