It Takes a Village

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of taking responsibility for your own health journey. This is a crucial step in the transformative process of becoming more physically, emotionally, and psychologically healthy. Until this shift in how we define and approach our health journey, all other attempts at behavior change will likely be inconsistent and vulnerable to disruption based on any number of variables (e.g., where you live, how expensive a class or service is, how much affirmation you receive from others, your mood at any given moment, your current health status). As Joseph Campbell will tell us, there is a moment in every epic story when the hero must face their greatest obstacle. Your own story is no different; nobody else will ever have as much authority over your wellbeing as you do.

However, as a social psychologist, I know that there is no greater tool for influence than the power of other people. All humans are swayed by the opinions, behaviors, and norms of others. This general susceptibility to persuasion can be dangerous when it is paired with a lack of self-awareness or independent thinking, as evident in many contexts of group decision-making [1] and blind obedience to authority [2]. However, when used with intention, social influence and support can become one of our greatest gifts for motivation on the health journey.

All humans crave social interaction, belongingness, and support [5]. These social networks are crucial to preserving psychological and physiological health, as positive social interactions can shield or buffer against stress and the negative consequences of stress in the body [6]. You may not be familiar with the research on this topic, but you probably already intuitively know this to be true. When times get difficult, we often intuitively reach out to a friend or family member for counsel. This is a common reaction to stress that psychologists refer to as “tending and befriending”, a prosocial counterpart to the “fight or flight” response, and this is one of the healthiest reactions to stress we could possibly have [7]. Sometimes, the value of having someone who can listen to us lovingly and provide a new, uplifting perspective is priceless. It can be hard to imagine surviving the mundane stresses of life without this buffer.  

The relationship between your health and your social networks are manifold. Another take-home message from the research is that health behaviors, whether good or bad, are contagious. We tend to unconsciously mirror the behaviors of those around us, and over time, these daily behaviors amount to our lifestyle. The Framingham Heart Study has examined 12,067 people across multiple decades with the intention of understanding the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The study began in 1948 and researchers are still collecting follow-up data today. What researchers found in this study was that social networks predicted peoples’ likelihood of becoming obese [3] and taking up or quitting smoking [4]. These findings demonstrate the extent to which people are highly influenced by the behaviors of others in their social networks. Perhaps you’ve experienced this for yourself. You go to work with the best intentions to stick to your healthy lunch of fresh vegetables, fruits, and protein. Suddenly, you notice a big group of your coworkers gathered in the staff room passing around plates with slices of cake… and the rest is history.  Some networks are notorious for creating unhealthy cultural norms: drinking multiple cups of coffee per day; gathering in small groups for smoke breaks; or “treating” each other with donuts and candies.  One reason why this temptation is so hard to resist is because by giving in, you also receive the implicit benefit of social acceptance and belonging.

The good news is that by knowing this, we can exploit the power of social networks to our benefit. It can be easier to quit smoking in a group of fellow quitters. It's easier to wake up every morning for a run if you participate in a running group. We can find other people who have similar aspirations and share our strategies for success, encourage each other, and impart perspective and comfort when facing major challenges. When times get hard, we can trust that instinct to reach out and connect with others. We should take comfort in this realization that we are not alone. In the pursuit of a more balanced and healthier self, we can rely on the power of friendship and community for inspiration, support, and strength along the way. 

1.     Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (Vol. 349). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

2.     Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row.

3.     Christakis N.A. & Fowler J.H. (2007). The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine, 357:370–379.

4.     Christakis N.A. & Fowler J.H. (2008)The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network. New England Journal of Medicine, 358, 2249–2258.

5.     Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497.

6.     Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310

7.     Taylor, S. E. (2011). Social support: A review. The Handbook of Health Psychology, 189-214.