“Are your friends making you fat?”

A piece from the New York Times a year ago posed the question, “Are Your Friends Making You Fat?” The article looked at research done in Framingham, Mass., where the National Heart Institute has been tracking residents and their descendents in trying to better understand the causes of heart disease.

By logging medical information over time as well as social and family networks, the study provided evidence to social scientists that appeared to prove what until recently was accepted as common wisdom but not scientific fact: health and happiness are contagious, as are poor habits and pessimism.

The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influenced one another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviors — clusters of friends appeared to “infect” each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking.

The study seems to indicate that the people you surround yourself with shape what you think is “normal,” and that this effect is strengthened by how tight of a bond you share with them. Still, the study also indicates that influences can also skip over a person and affect others three degrees away — so even if your friend’s lifestyle doesn’t slide to match your weight gain, his perception of “acceptable” health has nonetheless shifted, and his brother may sense it is therefore now OK for him to inhale a bag of Cheetos for breakfast.

As someone who picked up smoking, poor eating habits, and about 15 pounds during university after “temporarily” leaving martial arts practice, I can see the wisdom gained from Framingham. When I look back at how my social network shifted from happy gym rats to contentious couch potatoes after high school, I can see a direct correlation with the overall decline in my physical and mental health during my 20s.

I’ve sought out advice from personal trainers and counsellors for these problems, but neither offered solutions that stuck. Though each offered solid exercise/diet and personal reflection tips, what neither group ever suggested was taking a good look at the people I was associating with. It wasn’t until reconnecting with a martial arts community like Kombat’s that I began to change. I still have a long way to go, but the journey doesn’t feel daunting anymore. If anything, it’s become downright enjoyable.

Pursuing a course of self-help sometimes blinds us into thinking too much about ourselves as individuals. We think of ourselves as being on a personal journey, of personal change, for personal reasons. But as Framingham illustrates, that couldn’t be further from the truth; not only are others affecting us and our goals, we’re doing the same to them, whether any of us mean to or not.

The Times’ article has an unfortunately accusatory title. Yes, it might be that your friends are making YOU fat, but that’s a two-way street. Thankfully, the piece ends on this note from researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler:

“Even as we are being influenced by others, we can influence others,” Christakis told me when we first met. “And therefore the importance of taking actions that are beneficial to others is heightened. . .

. . . For most of us, within three degrees we are connected to more than 1,000 people — all of whom we can theoretically help make healthier, fitter and happier just by our contagious example. “If someone tells you that you can influence 1,000 people,” Fowler said, “it changes your way of seeing the world.”

Who do you influence and in what way?

(Hat-tip to Sifu Joey)