In the News: Bad Habits Can Be Contagious, But Good Ones Are Too

If you are neither a smoker nor overweight, perhaps you didn’t pay too much attention to the recent research from Harvard Medical School that details how our friends and family influence our health choices.

First it was that overweight friends made it more likely that you were overweight. The most recent study followed more than 12,000 people over 32 years.

Authors concluded, among other things, that quitting smoking is contagious-and success depends to a large extent on a broadened view of our social network. Even two or three degrees of separation influence a habit like smoking. People quit in clusters, and the effect trickles down.

I find this kind of social psychology interesting because it reminds me of the interconnectedness of our lives. We are probably friends with our friends because we share things in common…but how often to we think about the ways which people in our lives affect us emotionally and influence our habits?

Our network of friends, family, and coworkers has profound influence over us both in ways we know and ways of which we are completely unaware. Have you ever drawn a map of who’s in your circle?

Make three lists of people you encounter in your life. Include in-person, email exchanges, and telephone calls:

  • Make a list of everyone you interact with daily
  • Make a second list of everyone you interact with weekly
  • Make a third of everyone you interact with only monthly

What kinds of people are in your regular network and when interacting with them, do you feel better about the world? What habits do the people around you have and what opinions do they hold? For instance, would you exercise more if the people in your life did? Do you eat fast food or keep up with reality TV because those around you do? Are their qualities ones that you emulate, seek to avoid, or hope to absorb?

Most importantly, who’s missing? What kind of people do you need more of in your life? I often describe to my teen clients how important it is to grow a “garden” of a variety of friends. We know how susceptible teens are to influence from their peers. As adults do we really think we are any different?

Read the most recent summary of these findings at www.NPR.org.