The Company You Keep: A Powerful Motivator
Jim Rohn famously stated, “You are the average of the 5 people closest to you.” Indeed, by helping define what’s acceptable and unacceptable behavior, the people in our lives shape our norms and our reality, thereby having a profound influence on what we believe and who we become.
While proposing the idea of Supporti, a program that pairs people together as moral support buddies, people have asked how it’s different than setting a calendar reminder that tells you what to do. To me, the difference can be summarized as this:
You’ve probably never felt heartbroken/loved/disappointed/guilty/[insert emotion here] by your smartphone.
In other words, a reminder might prevent you from forgetting, but that's not the same as being motivated. An alarm doesn't have the same influence as a breathing human capable of feelings like disappointment or pride. For most of us, letting someone else down or making someone proud are extremely powerful emotions. What if these emotions could be used to motivate and inspire us to continually improve ourselves?
Behavior is contagious
To illustrate how human behavior is contagious, one of my favorites is this video of a single guy starting a dance party at a concert.
When we see another person acting in a certain way, we can get inspired to join in, or even just watch (or pull out a cell phone and post it on YouTube). That's how we start to learn behaviors from the people around us—and research has shown that this can significantly influence our health and wellbeing.
For example, a study of obesity in a large social network found that a person’s chance of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese. Furthermore, a significant other's health can mean life or death, literally. The widowhood effect refers to the phenomenon where when a spouse dies, the partner has an increased likelihood of dying soon after. Research shows that in the 3 months following the death of a long-term spouse, the partner has a 66% increased chance of dying.
Luckily, happiness is contagious too. Researchers found that having a happy friend that lives within a mile of you increases the probability that you'll be happy too. Since we can see and hear emotions through things like smiles and laughter, we are intuitively programmed to recognize and learn emotions of those around us.
People: a powerful resource
One of the most famous uses of peer motivation is the role of the sponsor for Alcoholics Anonymous programs. According to aa.org, a sponsor is someone “with whom we can feel comfortable, someone with whom we can talk freely and confidentially.” And it goes both ways; by supporting someone else, the sponsor feels rejuvenated:
“Sponsorship also offers the satisfaction that comes from assuming responsibility for someone other than oneself. In a very real sense, it fills the need, felt by most human beings, to help others over rough spots.”
- Alcoholics Anonymous
If you start looking, you'll find many heartwarming stories of life-changing human connections. One of my favorites is the unlikely friendship between a 4-year-old girl and a heartbroken old man that began as a greeting in a grocery store. The little girl not only made this man's day, but also gave him something to live for. Another is how a taxi driver picked up a doctor who gave his family an opportunity he could have never imagined. Or the woman who inspired a man she met through an online game to lose over 400 pounds. Sometimes all it takes is just one person, one conversation, to change everything.
For even further evidence of how human connections can truly change someone else’s life, there's no better example than Best Buddies. Best Buddies’ one-on-one friendship program pairs people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities to provide social mentoring and improving the quality of life of people with disabilities. Just watch Katie’s story to learn how having someone recognize and include you can change your life:
Whether planned or spontaneous, it’s clear that the influence we humans have on one another is powerful. The world is full of connections like these (and if you want more inspiring stories about the kindness of strangers, check out Reader’s Digest's True Stories). You probably have someone in your life who has made a profound impact on you. Maybe you've made a profound impact on someone else. You’d be hard pressed to find any smartphone app that’s quite as powerful.
When I asked community members in MyFitnessPal forums who has helped them on their weight loss journey, many people were quick to say they did it alone, by themselves, for themselves. There's no denying that it takes extreme self-discipline and work to be successful for such an endeavor. No one can nor should take that away from you.
That said, I find it hard to believe that those individuals didn't find support through blogs, books, or other information from those who paved the way before them. By denying that they've received any support from other people, it suggests that seeking out encouragement makes their success less noble, and that's not the case. There's no shame in asking for help. By refusing to seek out encouragement, we might be neglecting one of the most powerful motivational resources. That's not noble—that's just inefficient.
They say you are the company you keep. So don't be afraid to seek the support of other people, especially those you admire, along your journey of self-improvement. And take a look at how you can positively influence the people around you, too.