“Hang around 5 idiots and you’ll become the 6th. Hang around 5 millionaires and you’ll become the 6th.”

Unknown

One of the most influential studies you’ve never heard of has taken place for more than 70 years with over 15,000 total participants. Despite its impact on society, the study barely received any direct, public attention until the last 10 years.

Have you ever heard of the Framingham Study? 

How about this…

Are you aware of the connection between cholesterol and heart disease? 

Did you know that higher levels of blood pressure contribute to an elevated risk of heart disease? 

I’m guessing you replied with an “absolutely” for the last two, but a “no” to the first question. Yet, it was the Framingham Study that made those two medical conclusions possible. In its first 50 years, the study led to numerous medical breakthroughs in understanding the many links between lifestyle behaviors and heart disease. 

While the main goal of the study was to increase our understanding of risk factors associated with cardiovascular health, there was one question added to the end of its questionnaires that would allow for later breakthroughs in our overall understanding of social influence. 

Landmark Study

The study began in 1948, when a little over 5,000 people in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts opted into research that would see them complete bi-annual questionnaires and physicals. As the study continued throughout the years, the next generations of participants were included in its data set – pushing the total number north of 15,000. 

Between the physicals and the questionnaires, the Framingham Study made invaluable contributions to our modern understanding of heart disease. Yet, there was one question that proved critical for later social scientists. At the end of the questionnaire, participants were asked to list various family members as well as at least one close friend. The intention of the researchers had been to create a system for tracking down participants if they moved. However, in 2003 two social scientists were attempting to create a data-based framework to understand the power of population networks. When they came across the Framingham Study and saw the social bonds question, they knew they had the necessary information for their work. 

Your Friends Predict Your Future

When the scientists entered time-lapsed data into the population model and hit play, they witnessed social behaviors spreading through the population of Framingham like a virus. Whether these behaviors were positive or negative didn’t matter. Long had there been an understanding that our friends were influential on our own decisions, but findings from the study surpassed even the strongest of expectations. 

In essence, your friends predict your future. 

If someone you identify as a close friend becomes obese? You’re 57% more likely to become obese. 

If a friend of a friend – someone you don’t even socialize with – becomes obese? You’re 20% more likely to become obese. 

Even more incredible? If two people identify each other as the best of friends and one of them becomes obese? The other friend is 300% more likely to become obese. 

I’m using the obese example here due to it’s profound illustration on the influence our circle of friends has upon our longterm lifestyle behaviors. The research extends far beyond just obesity, though. 

If a friend begins smoking, then you’re 36% more likely to begin smoking as well. A friend of a friend – again, someone you don’t even socialize with directly? You’re 11% more likely to begin smoking. 

Here was direct evidence of the sheer power of social influence, and at a critical time for our digital society.  

Happiness Occurs in Clusters

But it wasn’t just lifestyle behaviors that the researchers found moving throughout social networks. It was also happiness

Happy people have happy friends. Unhappy people have unhappy friends. 

Even on social media platforms such as Facebook

Recent research has found that smiling profile photos and accounts with generally positive status updates tend to occur in clusters, very similar to findings generated from the Framingham Study. 

And, happiness seems to value wider social networks – more connections – than what had been anticipated. In light of other findings from Framingham and related studies, it’s possible this does make sense. If behaviors and habits are contagious like a virus, then a person would be more likely to have a positive mental state if they increase their opportunities to “become infected” with happiness throughout the day. 

What does this mean for you? 

In no way is this an argument to get your “friends” count on Facebook up into the high 4 and 5 figures. 

However, this article is meant to serve as a reminder that the people we surround ourselves with have a profound influence on us. Potentially far more than we have ever realized. 

On a fascinating note, the average number of close friends that the typical person possesses has not changed over the years, despite the rise of social media and corresponding influence its had on the concept of the word “friend”. That number is 6.6. 

It’s just that your future self depends heavily on who comprises that 6.6 number. 

Do they share similar aspirations as yourself, or a similar level of ambition? 

Are they on the same page as you when it comes to defining the words healthy and happy? Even better, do they inspire to think greater when it comes to those words? 

These are just a couple of questions to consider. 

As the Framingham Study taught us, when it comes to your friends you need to choose wisely. Your health and happiness depends on it. 

Share This