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Improve Your Life by Improving Your Friends

You are the average of the five people you associate with most.

It’s a statement you’ve likely heard before, but it truly is profound. While some may argue we are individuals of conscious thought and free will, it is undeniable that our behavior is influenced by our peer group. We’re creatures of emulation, and put in an environment long enough, we begin to assimilate. The people we spend time with influence our thoughts, our behaviors, our habits, our mindsets, and the other people we meet — it’s a virtuous, or harmful, cycle.

A comprehensive study in 2007 made it clear just how much our friends can influence us. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, closely followed over 12,000 people for 32 years to track their health habits over the years. The results speak for themselves:

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  • When a friend became obese, it increased one’s chances of becoming obese by 57 percent.
  • When a mutually close friend became obese, it increased the likelihood by a resounding 171 percent.
  • The same effect occurred for weight loss. When a friend picked up healthier habits and lost weight, it increased one’s likelihood of doing the same.

The researchers explained that our friends change our opinions on what we believe to be appropriate social behavior. This makes sense. Few of us actively choose to gain weight, but when we see our friends helping themselves to dessert after dinner, we tend to follow suit. These small habits that seem benign at first slowly add up and compound over the years.

Evolutionary psychology may play a role as well. In the days of hunters and gatherers, we relied on tribes to meet our basic needs. Not fitting in or going against the tribe signaled an early death, thus it was crucial to follow the rules of the pack. This desire to fit in has likely remained hardwired into us today, which manifests into social and peer pressure.

It isn’t far-fetched to extrapolate the findings on health influences to other areas in life. If you want to develop a way of thinking or acting, associate with those who already embody those qualities. Likewise, reduce how much time you spend with people who are a negative influence on you.

The following quote by American politician and former four-star general Colin Powell perfectly summarizes this.

The less you associate with some people, the more your life will improve. Any time you tolerate mediocrity in others, it increases your mediocrity. An important attribute in successful people is their impatience with negative thinking and negative acting people. As you grow, your associates will change. Some of your friends will not want you to go on. They will want you to stay where they are. Friends that don’t help you climb will want you to crawl. Your friends will stretch your vision or choke your dream. Those that don’t increase you will eventually decrease you.

This is a particularly interesting topic to me at this time because of how it applies to my own life. I’ve realized if I want to take the next step forward in my life, I need to surround myself with others who share my level of ambition and drive to create a purposeful life. Some of the people closest to me right now are friends I’ve had for many years, but they’re the type to come home from work and watch TV or play DotA until it’s time to go to bed, seven days a week. It’s a fine life, but it’s not one that I wish for myself. Yet despite my grievances, I can feel myself being drawn into that sort of complacency.

As Powell suggests, I’m increasing my own mediocrity by tolerating it from those around me. While I don’t intend to cut these friendships altogether, it’s clear I need to branch out and meet new people.

This is scary, of course. Our inclination is to seek out those who are already similar to us. But as with anything in life, growth often occurs in the ensuing change after problems are confronted. A certain onus lies on each of us to seek out those who will challenge and inspire us to better ourselves — and in turn, for us to do the same.

Perhaps you feel the same way. Maybe a little part of you feels unsatisfied with the average of who you’re becoming. If that’s the case, I encourage you to sacrifice a degree of comfort and begin to expand your network. Find people you wish to emulate and learn from, and do everything you can to create those new connections. Figure out how to add value to their lives, and surely they will seek your company just as much.

The simple but true fact of life is that you become like those whom you closely associate with — for better or for worse. And as the science has shown, if someone isn’t making you stronger, they’re making you weaker.

It’s up to each of us to decide which it will be.