When we’re young and have limited control over our own social lives, we tend to gravitate towards friends who share a few of our interests and geographical proximity.
These relationships are formative, and these friends often play a major role in some of our most emotionally significant (and thus most-memorable) life experiences. As a result, these bonds are hard to break.
But our relationships are also an extremely important part of our own personal growth because our peer groups play a significant role in the way we act and perceive the world around us.
You may have heard the phrase, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” It’s an idea that was popularized by motivational speaker Jim Rohn, and there’s a tremendous amount of validity to the core concept. But Rohn’s quote doesn’t actually go far enough.
Study after study after study has shown that it’s not just the people in our immediate sphere that play a role in our attitudes and behaviors, but even those a few degrees of separation away—not just our friends, but friends of friends, and friends of their friends.
In 2007, Yale University sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis and UC-San Diego social scientist James Fowler proposed a theory they called Three Degrees of Influence, describing the way ideas and habits “ripple” through human networks. These influences eventually dissipate as we get farther and farther away from our immediate peer-group for several reasons, but one thing is clear: Who we spend time with—and even who they spend time with—really matters.
Of course, most of us intuitively understand some elements of this problem.
If you’re trying to quit smoking, spending a lot of time around smokers will make that incredibly difficult. If you’re on a diet, having friends who constantly want to go out for ice cream instead of the gym isn’t going to help you get in shape.
But people forget that the same thing applies to other personal and professional habits.
Are the people you spend the most time with (and their friends, and friends of friends) successful in their careers, or are they constantly struggling to keep a job? Are they regularly on time or do they show up late? Do they spend any time outside of work learning how to improve their skills and thinking about ways to do their jobs better, or do they do everything they can to avoid thinking about work after they clock out? Are your friends looking forward to the future and excited about their careers, or are they constantly annoyed and complaining about their position?
We’re all influenced by the ideas, attitudes, and actions of the people around us.
If we’re not careful to surround ourselves with people who elevate our habits and ideas, we may find ourselves adopting bad habits instead.
Better Yourself, and Friends Will Find You
The best friends are the friends we make when we’re not desperately looking for friends.