We all want an awesome life. And very often you know what you need to do to improve it… but you don’t do it.
I don’t blame you. Hey, some of that stuff is hard. (I should know. I write about it all the time.)
Isn’t there an easy, passive way where your flaws start correcting themselves, you gain respectable goals and become much, much happier?
Well, at least in theory, there just might be. I called somebody to find out.
Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is a professor at Yale University and directs the Human Nature Lab there. He is the author (with James Fowler) of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.
Here’s his TED talk:
Tons of research (and common sense) shows that the people around you influence your behavior. In fact, they influence it a lot more than you might think and probably more than you’re comfortable with admitting.
But here’s the really crazy part: not only do your friends affect your behavior, so do their friends. And their friends’ friends. Here’s Nicholas:
Across many different kinds of behavior: voting, cooperation, smoking, weight loss and weight gain, happiness, cooperative behavior, public health behaviors, we and others have been able to show that people are very meaningfully affected by the behaviors of other people to whom they’re connected. And here’s the kicker: they are also affected by the behaviors of people to whom they’re not directly connected. When your friend’s friends quit smoking or your friend’s friends friend become nicer and more cooperative, this ripples through the network and affects you. Similarly, when you make a positive change in your life, when you start running for example, or you participate in our democracy and you vote, it ripples outward from you and can affect dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of other people.
So if you spend time with different people, could you become a different person?
Want the laziest way to improve your life? The prescription is simple…
The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death had this to say:
The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change.
In Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:
In a 1994 Harvard study that examined people who had radically changed their lives, for instance, researchers found that some people had remade their habits after a personal tragedy… Just as frequently, however, there was no tragedy that preceded people’s transformations. Rather, they changed because they were embedded in social groups that made change easier… When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real.
But what if you’re not even trying to make big changes in your life? What if you just want to be treated well? Turns out altruism and jerk-itude also move through networks. Here’s Nicholas:
We’ve shown that altruistic behavior ripples through networks and so does meanness. Networks will magnify whatever they are seeded with. They will magnify Ebola and fascism and unhappiness and violence, but also they will magnify love and altruism and happiness and information.
And the workplace isn’t much different. Behavior is contagious there, too.
Psychologists have observed that bad habits can spread through an office like a contagious disease. Employees tend to mirror the bad behaviors of their co-workers, with factors as diverse as low morale, poor working habits, and theft from the employer all rising based on the negative behavior of peers. – Greene 1999
When I spoke to Stanford GSB professor Bob Sutton, he told me his #1 piece of advice to students was this:
When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with — because the odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you.
(For more on how to get people to like you, from an FBI behavior expert, click here.)
So the people around you can unconsciously affect your behavior in many ways — positive and negative. Let’s focus on one thing we’re all interested in: happiness. Because this is where it gets really interesting…
Would an extra $10,000 dollars a year make you happier? I’ll assume you’re nodding. Research shows 10K only provides a 2% increased chance of happiness.
Meanwhile, being surrounded by happy friends makes you 15% more likely to be happy.
Even if a friend of a friend of a friend becomes happier, that means a 6% chance you will become happier.
So the happiness of people you have never met — and may never meet — is three times as powerful as money.
An extra $5,000 in 1984 dollars (which corresponds to about $10,000 in 2009 dollars) was associated with only a 2 percent increased chance of a person being happy. So, having happy friends and relatives appears to be a more effective predictor of happiness than earning more money. And the amazing thing is that even people who are three degrees removed from you, whom you may have never met, can have a stronger impact on your personal happiness than a wad of hundreds in your pocket.
A happy friend increases the likelihood of you being happy by 9%. An unhappy friend means a 7% decrease.
You don’t need a degree in accounting to figure out what that means: overall, more friends = more happiness.
Spending time making friends has a higher happiness ROI than time spent making money. So next time you meet up with a happy pal, ask them to bring a friend. Even a lazy person can manage that.
We found that each happy friend a person has increases that person’s probability of being happy by about 9 percent. Each unhappy friend decreases it by 7 percent. So if you were simply playing the averages, and you didn’t know anything about the emotional state of a new person you just met, you would probably want to be friends with her. She might make you unhappy, but there is a better chance she will make you happy. This helps to explain why past researchers have found an association between happiness and the number of friends and family.
Here’s the really interesting part: you can totally rig the system. It’s the scientific version of karma.
With the effect spanning three degrees, there’s a good chance making a small effort to make friends happier will flow back to you.
Nicholas found that if a friend became happy in the past six months there’s a 45% chance your happiness will increase.
(For more on what you can learn from the happiest people in the world, click here.)
So, lazy bones, are you willing to send a couple emails or texts to dramatically increase your happiness? Here’s how.
Unsurprisingly, people at the periphery of a network have fewer friends and are more likely to be lonely.
And yes, that loneliness can flow back three degrees to you. (And no, you can’t easily track these people down and kick them out of your network.) Know what you can do? Introduce your friends to each other.
Again, happy friends means a 9% gain, unhappy friend means a 7% loss. All other things being equal, I’ll take those odds in Vegas any day. This strengthens the network, and increases everyone’s chance of staying happy.
At the periphery, people have fewer friends; this makes them lonely, but this also tends to drive them to cut the few ties that they have left. But before they do, they may infect their friends with the same feeling of loneliness, starting the cycle anew. These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a strand of yarn that comes loose from the sleeve of a sweater. If we are concerned about combating the feeling of loneliness in our society, we should aggressively target the people at the periphery with interventions to repair their social networks. By helping them, we can create a protective barrier against loneliness that will keep the whole network from unraveling.
(To learn the 4 most common relationship problems — and how to fix them, click here.)
So a few tiny efforts can yield massive positive change in your life. Let’s round up the details and learn two other fascinating tidbits that can change the way you see the world — and make that world a better place.
Here’s what we can learn from Nicholas:
Other research Nicholas did turned up something truly heartwarming: friends are family. Quite literally. Here’s Nicholas:
We looked at the genetic similarity between friends and we found that on a very deep level you resemble your friends genetically. What this means is that, basically, your friends are kin that you choose. What we found in one of our papers was that, roughly speaking, your friends are something like your fourth cousin.
And one last thing: keep in mind that Nicholas’ research also gives you great power. And, as all good Spider-Man fans know, with “great power comes great responsibility.” Here’s Nicholas:
It’s very important for people to understand that when they make a positive change in their lives it doesn’t just affect them. It affects everyone they know and many of the people that those people know and many of the people that those people in turn know. If you make a positive change in your life it actually ripples through the social fabric and comes to benefit many other people. This recognition that we are all connected and that in our connectedness we affect each other’s lives I think is a very fundamental and moving observation of our humanity.
When you make a positive change in your life, it affects the people around you and ripples out to others.
So you can be lazy and see benefits by surrounding yourself with great people — but you can also choose to make strides in your life, even small ones, and contagiously pass those benefits to those you care about.
Making yourself a better person isn’t a gift you only give to yourself. It’s a gift you give to the world.
Spread the happiness virus! Share this with friends (and friends of friends, and friends of… you get it.)
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