It's the first week of the new year, and so — as if decreed by law — millions of people are re-evaluating their lifestyle choices and resolving to make better, healthier decisions this year. Of course, whenever we embark on a new habit or goal, it is helpful to get support and encouragement from our family and friends. But what if our friends are encouraging our bad habits without even knowing it? Do we need to leave our old friends behind along with our old habits?
According to the Oxford English dictionary, a habit is "a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up." This definition sums up the concept precisely, even our inclination to associate a habit with negative behavior. For when we think of habits, we naturally conjure up images of smoking, drinking too much, eating poorly, watching endless television or cracking our knuckles (gross!). The fact is, however, that habits can be good things as well, such as meditating each morning, consuming fruits and vegetables, flossing and exercising daily or reading before bed.
When a particular action delivers a valued reward, then we naturally repeat the behavior over and over and enjoy that reward. For example, 1) order cake, 2) get a surge of sugar, 3) feel good instantly and 4) rinse and repeat. Because our brain seeks to function as easily and efficiently as possible, over time, we carve a memory of this rewarding activity into our neural pathways, essentially putting the task on autopilot. So when we seek a reprieve from a blue mood or high stress, our brain kicks into action and directs us to "eat a piece of cake" because it has learned that this behavior provides the instant result of good feelings.
Research suggests that although we can certainly create new neural pathways and carve memories of new rewards into them through repeated behaviors (like exercising to produce the good feelings caused by elevated endorphins in our body), the old pathways — even with prolonged disuse — still remain intact and can re-trigger with even the slightest provocation. This is why old habits die hard.
OK, so we now know how habits — both good and bad — form and why they are hard to overcome. But what do we do when we want to break a bad habit or start a new, positive one, and our friends don't share the same goals?
While it might seem obvious, a recent study confirms that people tend to associate, mix, mingle and socialize with others who share their lifestyles and habits. Smokers, for example, are more prone than average to hang out with others who also smoke. Likewise, those who make exercise a part of their daily routine are more likely than others to have friends who also seek to break a sweat each day. And while research has established this connection, there is debate over which is the cause and which is the effect.
Do people befriend those who are similar to themselves (a concept known as homophily), or do people adopt lifestyles based on their circle of friends (a phenomenon known as social contagion)? The answer is... a little bit of both.
The truth is that we do seek out folks who are similar to us and we tend to follow the masses when it comes to diet, exercise, clothing choices, study habits, marital fidelity etc. You get the point. You initially select friends because you fit in with them, and then you naturally adapt to the norms of that circle.
Therefore, if you see a friend ordering a hamburger and fries, well... you are more inclined to view this as an acceptable meal choice and allow yourself to order the same high-calorie meal. Likewise, if you see your friend training for a marathon, you again see fitness as socially acceptable and are more inclined to hit the pavement yourself.
It stands to reason, then, that if you happen to socialize with a less healthy crowd, your efforts to change habits to the healthier end of the spectrum will be tougher than if you spend time in the company of fitness and diet enthusiasts.
But don't be fooled into thinking that we are all lemmings just waiting to be led into any behavior. Our choices are still are own. And so, even though your friends may light up a cigarette from time to time, you are free to abstain. Similarly, when friends gather for a game of Frisbee, you are also free to join in.
Friendship is based more on self-disclosure, support, interaction and a positive outlook than on what a person orders for lunch. So, with this new year and new beginning, you should absolutely seek to integrate healthier habits into your life. When you do, you'll probably find that you also begin to meet and socialize with some new and healthier people, too. But don't think that you need to turn your social circle inside out to do this.
Instead, in addition to putting "Get fit" on your list of goals, put "Be a positive role model” on the list. Your old friends will appreciate you for your encouragement, and I'm betting that Greek salads and plank positions will soon find themselves on the list of what your group considers "acceptable and normal."
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