I grew up in a working-class small town in upstate New York (the huge part of New York state that isn’t New York City. I’m a bit touchy about this.)
When I was in high school, academic rigor was the exception rather than the rule, sports were an obsession, and blending into the crowd was the primary goal of most of my peers.
I was a teenager who didn’t particularly like sports but loved doing homework, listening to classical music, and practicing the clarinet. Throw in the fact that I often wore Victorian-inspired dresses my mother made for me, and I was practically a unicorn.
But I was fortunate to find a group of friends with a similar mindset: we all got good grades, participated in various extracurricular activities, and planned to go to college. Four of us formed a peer group that stuck together throughout high school.
Though different in many ways, we bonded over common aspirations and provided each other with important friendship and support at a critical time in our lives. Though I long ago lost touch with these friends, our high school bond was helped us navigate our way through high school and stay on the course we’d set for ourselves.
Now that I’m middle-aged, I find myself wondering how those I hang out with will affect my ability to navigate this next critical phase of my life in the best way possible. Research strongly suggests that those we surround ourselves with have a significant impact on our behavior and ideas.
Darren Hardy, the editor of SUCCESS magazine says, “According to research by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard, [the people you habitually associate with] determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.”
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn is famous for saying that we become the average of the five people we hang around with most. But, citing studies regarding our friends’ ability to influence everything from our weight to our likelihood of smoking to our level of happiness, this article posits that the influence of our social sphere is much broader than our closest friends. There’s evidence that the sphere of influence extends to the friends of our friends – and beyond.
The implications of this are profound, especially for those of us who would like to navigate the next part of our life as well as possible.
For many of us in our 40s and 50s there will soon be more years behind than ahead of us, and that can cause us to consider making serious changes. On the one hand, we have less energy and drive than we did in our 20s but we have also gained valuable wisdom and experience. We might want to simplify our daily lives, reduce stress, and spend more time on things that our experience tells as are most meaningful.
Given that most of us are up to our eyeballs in responsibilities and commitments, changes like these aren’t easy to make. We have a job, a mortgage, and a child or elderly parent (perhaps both) who need us. These responsibilities aren’t going anywhere, which makes reprioritizing difficult.
If we’re committed to making significant changes, though, research suggests that we should carefully consider the company we keep.
For example, if we’d like to live a life of joy and curiosity, we should spend time with others who also value these things and avoid those who simply gripe all the time and whose primary goal is to gossip.
Let’s say you decide that quieting your inner critic and becoming your own cheerleader is a priority for you - a mindset shift I discussed in my last blog. In that case, consider spending less time with Negative Nellies and make a point of spending more time with those who think and speak positively and optimistically.
The hardest part of this process might be avoiding the “leeches” - the dreaded co-worker, neighbor or member of our book club who is simply a drag and who we’d avoid altogether if we could. When avoidance isn’t possible, here are some strategies for managing your time with Mr. or Ms. Sourpuss:
Set boundaries up front. When this person heads towards you, say “I just have a minute to chat before I must…” and set the stage for your early departure from the conversation.
Detach from their drama. We mean to be kind and helpful, but sometimes offering advice for the hardship they’re facing (yet again) does nothing to truly help them and just sucks you in to their downward spiral. In this case, “resist offering solutions. Instead, say something like, ‘I'm confident that you'll be able to find the right answer,’ and excuse yourself.”
Listen but don’t emotionally engage. If you find your own negative emotions getting riled up when you deal with a negative person, don’t engage at all. Simply listen and don’t respond.
Fly, fly away. Like telling your spouse that the Born to Run t-shirt they’ve had since high school still looks great on them, a white lie can be a good thing. If all else fails, invent an excuse to scram. It’s better to do this than ruin your morning in a prolonged negative conversation with someone you can’t help, anyway.
Hopefully, though, most of the people you hang around with are part of a mutually beneficial community of inspiration and support. I wish this for both of us, as the research is clear that those we spend the most time with influence us immensely – for better or worse.
“The lesson here is to actively construct your social environment. Don’t let it depend on proximity or chance or on how it has always been, but consciously plan which opinions, attitudes and life-philosophies you do and do not allow to be in your life .”
Of course, we also bear a responsibility to be co-creators of a supportive environment by making positive and affirming choices with our own words and actions. Perhaps we'll try harder to avoid negative gossip and instead practice compassion and offer encouragement more freely. Or maybe we'll strive to be a better listener when a friend needs to talk - rather than jumping in and "helping" by telling them how they can "fix" things - which is my tendency, I'm sorry to say.
We all have important values we want to live out and goals we'd like to achieve. If we want the best for ourselves and those we care about, we must be mindful of the friends we keep, and the friend we are.
As research shows us, in many important ways our friendships are our future.