Mel Robbins: The Friend Virus

I grew up in Western Michigan, in a little town called North Muskegon. I went east for college and law school and ended up settling there when I fell in love. I had always dreamed of having my wedding at home in Michigan, and in 1996, my husband and I got married at my parents’ place on Bear Lake.

The rehearsal dinner was at an old tavern next to the water. At one point in the evening, my mom walked over and said, “I’ve lost you to the East Coast, Mel.” I smiled at her and said, “No you haven’t, I just live there; I’m a Midwesterner at heart.” She pressed on, “No, you are one of them now. Just look at how you have your sweater wrapped around your shoulders.”

I was wearing a red sundress, and my cardigan sweater was, in fact, tied around my neck and resting on my shoulders. “That’s how people in the East wear their sweaters,” Mom said. “You’ve become one of them.”

I looked around, and sure enough, the entire room could be divided into Midwesterners and Northeasterners simply by how their sweaters were tied. All of my high-school friends, neighbors and family members had tied their sweaters around their waists.

Little did my mother know, she was pointing out a highly researched fact: Your friends’ behavior is contagious. Everything including obesity, divorce, smoking and apparently sweater-wearing spreads like a virus. An ongoing, multi-decade research project proves the extent that our friends’ behavior affects our own. The Framingham Heart Study began in 1948 with people in Framingham, Mass. To date, the data collected on some 12,000 participants has yielded some startling results. Check this out:

? If someone you name as a friend gets divorced, you are 147 percent more likely to get divorced than if you didn’t have a friend who got divorced.

?If a friend becomes obese, the likelihood that you will follow suit increases by 171 percent.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a principal investigator of the data, explains why the “infection” rate for obesity and other behaviors is so high. “You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you,” he says.

If you look at your network and see a group of people who are getting heavy, divorced or laid off, you are going to have to work harder to fight off the infection rate in your own life. I’m not saying you should abandon your friends in their time of need, but you should at least look for new sources of positive inspiration and influence.

This phenomenon can also work to your advantage. If you want to make any change in your life, surround yourself with people who have what you want—whether that’s prosperity, health or loving relationships—and don’t be afraid to identify yourself as being one of them.

I went back to Michigan this summer. As the plane pulled up to the gate, my kids were like caged animals. I reminded them to wait while I gathered our carry-ons. As soon as I stood up, I took off my sweater and tied it snugly around my waist.

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