How much of an influence over us do our friends really have? In some cases, they might influence our weight (through food choices and even through shared activities), or they might influence our ambition. Maybe you had a friend go do something extraordinary and you think hey, maybe I should go back to school and try to reach a little higher, too. So we already know that our friends have an influence on our behavior over the long term. But it turns out, they even impact our daily moods.
Could healthy habits be contagious? It turns out, yes. Studies indicate that our online and face-to-face relationships may affect everything from our workouts to our weight and more.
Beyond affecting our physical health, the company we keep may actually influence our emotional well-being. Researchers have found that we can “catch” or become infected by others’ emotions. The so-called contagious feelings include happiness, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
Our social networks are usually pretty diverse. In them we might find both happy and unhappy individuals—the one that only has sad things to say and the one that's always saying "be happy, people!" But if you were to then look at their networks, you'd likely find that the positive people typically are connected to other upbeat folks, which keeps everyone feeling emotionally good—and the downers are likewise surrounded by negative nellies.
Researchers also investigated how new friendships may influence our mood. The study revealed that every time we form a new friendship with a happy person, we increase our likelihood of feeling positive by almost 10 percent. So, hey, that means it's not too late! We can make choices today to look for new people to add to our circles who are positive and reap a big difference.
National Geographic fellow and author Dan Buettner analyzed the lifestyles of individuals in the “Blue Zones” (residents in these areas, which range from Europe to Latin America to Asia, average much longer lifestyles).
Here’s what the Blue Zone research into friendships revealed:
To complement studies showing the benefits of keeping company with happy people, researchers have also analyzed what happens when we spend time with negative folks. They found working with colleagues who seem depressed or angry may make us feel down or irritable as well.
Worse, is that negative moods might be so contagious that toxic employees have the power to damage a company’s environment. These colleagues may insist on harmful gossip while putting down others or in some ways become the center of a negative company network that makes everyone feel uncomfortable.
Being around such individuals may leave us feeling unhappy and mentally drained but it can be hard to realize this is what's happening. We might in turn influence others to whom we are connected, spreading the contagious mood like a bad case of the flu.
To steer clear of such negative people, experts recommend we distance ourselves both emotionally and physically as soon as we realize someone is a negative influence. Setting boundaries with those who are always in a bad mood offers an invisible shield when removal isn't really possible.
But how? Just let the person know that you're at a place where you really need to limit negativity in your life. Ask them to limit how much negativity they share with you. And when they start to be negative, put up a hand, stop them, and say I'm sorry, I can't participate in negativity right now. Boundaries work!
As important as limiting the negative flow into your life is to boost the positive. Recognizing how the company we keep may make or break our mood may motivate us to develop and strengthen positive friendships. As we age, those relationships might become even more important. A recent study showed one-quarter of the nation’s adults 65 and older feel lonely and isolated. Those emotions are linked to dementia, heart disease, and memory loss—so it would behoove us all to prepare in advance of that stage of life by buffering ourselves with good, positive, friendships. The rewards of strong relationships include:
We might need to devote time and effort to improve the company we keep. Too many of us consider our friendships something accidental that happens to us instead of something that we can and should cultivate with intention. But once we make the switch and commit to the process, the benefits are really worth it.
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