You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
Let’s just stop and think about that for a second. Whom do you spend more of your time with than anyone else? How much are we each our own person? How much of our emotions, thoughts and actions occur because of the someone else?
As it turns out, the answer is quite a lot.
As human beings, we are incredibly influential and influenceable to different degrees. We exist within deeply interconnected social spiderwebs where everything is contagious. I mean everything – weight loss to the common cold to dissatisfaction with work. Everyone is on earth is separated by an average of six degrees of separation, and your actions have an impact that extends far beyond your closest friends.
In their bestselling book, Connected, scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler speak about the power of social networks and how they impact our lives. It turns out, our thoughts, actions and feelings have three degrees of influence. This means that when you decide to eat healthier or join a gym, your friend, your friend’s cousin and his sister-in-law are that much more likely to do the same. All at varying degrees of intensity, of course. You have the strongest influence over your immediate peer group, and the weakest over those three degrees away. But the connections are there, and we are foolish to ignore them at this point when the world seems to be growing smaller by the day.
This ripple effect can have far-reaching consequences, both good and bad. When one person falls into a habit of neglecting their health, those around them are at an increased risk of doing the same. In the book, Christakis and Fowler explain how something as intangible as inexplicable fits of hysteria can spread throughout a school or even a country in a kind of social epidemic, much like a disease. It all transfers down the line eventually, if we are not conscious of what is happening and take steps to stop it before it travels too far.
Even loneliness is contagious, a fact we must be increasingly aware of in the coming years as our tendacy towards isolation becomes a growing concern.
Humans are very social beings. We crave connection on a cellular level. Our brains have been wired to react to rejection in the same way we would if the wound were a physical one, a signal to our body that it is likely dangerous for us to remain on our own. In this article in Psychology Today, writer Jennifer Latson explains how loneliness occurs more frequently on the fringes of a social network, and it can be passed from one person to the next just before that person retreats from the group, leaving a trace that can and will spread.
Loneliness, much like carbon monoxide, is a silent killer. It sneaks in slowly, imperceptibly, with no regard for the number of relationships you’ve collected over time. It does not discriminate against the well-connected and doesn’t care how old you are. It just shows up, and we must first take notice of our feelings in order to combat it.
Researchers are finding more and more how vital our social connections are to our overall well-being. Loneliness is more lethal than obesity or smoking and comes with an even longer list of side effects: from an increase in stress and anxiety to a heightened risk of depression and disease, loneliness is making its way to the top of a list of public health concerns. There is no traditional way to regulate it as one would a typical disease, and it remains attached to the stigma surrounding mental health that is ever so slowly changing, one day at a time. The best thing we can do for now is to pull those who like to linger at the edges a little closer in and make an effort to be conscious of the people in our lives.
If we really are so interconnected, maybe we should pay a little more attention to whom we’re spending our time with, and the ways in which we interact with others and ourself.
I have noticed many of these findings to be true in my own life. Empathy can be extremely powerful, and it has been entirely intuitive for me for as long as I can remember. More often than not, I find it easy to empathize with the point of view of whomever I am with at any given time. There are times when I am more perceptive than others, and in these times I find myself hyper-aware of the emotional state of the people that surround me. If I am not careful, I begin to inherit their traits.
I have felt this before in a very tangible way. If someone close to me is stressed or anxious or depressed, their pain begins to manifest itself in my own life. I find myself seeking control over things I typically feel no need to control. In the past, I have gotten so caught up in everything swirling around me that I forget who I am at my core. Only recently have I been able to recognize this within a few days of it happening and calm myself before I go too far.
In a sense, I can be a social chameleon, blending into the social setting or group I find myself in at any given time. I either bend myself to fit in or choose to stand firmly with my own beliefs on the opposite side of the spectrum – I am not very good at lingering halfway in between.
I have learned there is great value in giving people the space to be themselves and just agree to disagree.
This adaptability is a very natural human tendency; it is what enabled us to thrive in groups for so long. The pull of community is strong. There is, however, a fine balance to be found between seeing someone else’s perspective and losing oneself entirely. It is the dance of learning to observe one’s passing emotions while staying deeply rooted and grounded in oneself.
You are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time – so choose wisely. If you want to learn, surround yourself with people who are perpetually working to grow. If you wish to expand your perspective and open your mind, spend time with those who love to travel and go on adventures in their spare time.
Of course, this is not simply a one-way street. You influence the people around you just as much as they influence you. In this way, the kindest thing you can do for the world is first to learn to be gentle with yourself. Acknowledge and accept your worth as a human being, that there are times you are awesome or crazy or sad and that is okay. If you can show up for yourself in this way, you will be more understanding of those around you and in turn, help them accept themselves.
Who do you spend your time with? How do you think can you care for them better?