Monday, October 12, 2009

Stop Making Me Fat!

(This is my favorite photo of me and some of my closest friends.)

(I'm pregnant in both of these photos, but they show a lot of happiness!)

The other day I was feeling a bit glum because I had been trying to reach a good friend and she hadn't returned any of my calls or emails. Sometimes stuff like that bothers me, but other times it's no big deal. I stewed on it a couple of days and kind of let it get to me. Then, I decided it was silly to let some unknown explanation cause me to be down. I don't know what it was exactly that helped me to feel better or to just "let it go," as the saying goes. However, I haven't felt down since.

Now, I may have the answer. It's here. To sum it up, ('cause it's a rather long, but well worth the read 'cause it's a fascinating article) it may not have been my fault that I was glum. Perhaps it was because my neighbor's daughter had a bad day that I was feeling a bit blue. No, I'm not joking. There's a theory called the "'three degrees of influence' rule about human behavior: We are tied not just to those around us, but to others in a web that stretches farther than we know." In other words, the effect we have on other people doesn't disappear until three people later. Kind of hard to understand in the abstract, but here's a good example:

"Smoking, they discovered, also appeared to spread socially — in fact, a friend taking up smoking increased your chance of lighting up by 36 percent, and if you had a three-degrees-removed friend who started smoking, you were 11 percent more likely to do the same. Drinking spread socially, as did happiness and even loneliness. And in each case one’s individual influence stretched out three degrees before it faded out. "


"But how, exactly, could obesity or happiness spread through so many links? Between one immediate peer and another, some contagious behaviors — like smoking — seem pretty commonsensical. If lots of people around you are smoking, there’s going to be peer pressure for you to start, whereas if nobody’s smoking, you’ll be more likely to stop. But the simple peer-pressure explanation doesn’t work as well with happiness or obesity: we don’t often urge people around us to eat more or implore them to be happier. (In any case, simply telling someone to be happier or unhappier isn’t likely to work.) Instead, Christakis and Fowler hypothesize that these behaviors spread partly through the subconscious social signals that we pick up from those around us, which serve as cues to what is considered normal behavior. Scientists have been documenting this phenomenon; for example, experiments have shown that if a person is seated next to someone who’s eating more, he will eat more, too, unwittingly calibrating his sense of what constitutes a normal meal. Christakis and Fowler suspect that as friends around us become heavier, we gradually change our mental picture of what “obese” looks like and give ourselves tacit permission to add pounds. With happiness, the two argue that the contagion may be even more deeply subconscious: the spread of good or bad feelings, they say, might be driven partly by “mirror neurons” in the brain that automatically mimic what we see in the faces of those around us — which is why looking at photographs of smiling people can itself often lift your mood. "

Sure, you could say, oh just a coincidence. Or you could go a bit further and say what's the causation/correlation there? Do we gravitate toward people who share similar interests and that explains why we tend to spend time with people who share our views, our builds, our beliefs? I'm not quite sure myself that I'm sold on the whole idea, but it is fascinating to think about.

You might then say, "Well, I want to be thin, so I'll only hang out with skinny people," but according to the theory that may not be enough right? After all the people you're hanging out with are being influenced by their own three degrees of influence which may be putting pressure on them to eat more.

Another idea that was presented in the article that fascinated me dealt with friendship. I've always treasured friends because none of my siblings are close to my age, so I was raised as an only child. I would say I have a large group of friends that are important to me. I'm very intrigued by people and their decisions. I like to know everyone's story. So, what else did the study find?

"The subconscious nature of emotional mirroring might explain one of the more curious findings in their research: If you want to be happy, what’s most important is to have lots of friends. Historically, we have often thought that having a small cluster of tight, long-term friends is crucial to being happy. But Christakis and Fowler found that the happiest people in Framingham were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren’t necessarily deep ones.
The reason these people were the happiest, the duo theorize, is that happiness doesn’t come only from having deep, heart-to-heart talks. It also comes from having daily exposure to many small moments of contagious happiness. When you frequently see other people smile — at home, in the street, at your local bar — your spirits are repeatedly affected by your mirroring of their emotional state."

So, what I'm saying is, let's be friends. But please, watch what you eat, I'm trying to get thin!


jayne said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly. I actually noticed the negative effects of this years and years ago. I was "friends" with this girl who was the epitomy of the glass-half-empty theory. Negative Nancy. I started to look at everything negative in my life. I distanced myself so I wouldn't feel that way anymore. I like to surround myself with happy, positive people. It makes life soooo much more enjoyable. I will be your cyber friend. And I won't make you fat.....but I do think the Cheesecake Factory is a great way to celebrate girlfriends!

JenW said...

what an interesting article!!! what will they think of next:) hope all goes well today for you guys!

rachel said...

This very interesting. No wonder influence is so important in the gospel and why powerful people surround themselves with "greatness" etc. The business world is really full of examples. I am going to be a little happier subconsciously today to help everyone out around me:) Although, this whole winter thing is definitely encouraging my relationship with Blue Bunny and Ben & Jerry's. I will do my best for ya:)

Lauren and Trevor said...

Wow, that is interesting stuff. I am looking forward to reading that article that you linked.

Sabina said...

Wow, that was pretty deep. I might have to go and read that over a few times before I really grasp everything. What I do want to know is if I can blame my lingering baby-pounds on you and your fabulous blog that seems to be talking about food fairly often! Secondly, how do you find the time with your schedule and children to actually read, ponder, and them write about articles like that?

Lyndsey said...

that was great! so when i call you daily, please know that it is because i adore you AND you are skinny and fit..

wackywilsons said...

Very interesting! I have always thought that misery enjoys company...if you are eating a big bowl of ice cream, then I better do it with you!

I totally get worked up when people don't return calls... just goes to show that you yourself are a good friend to others.

Melinda said...

I love reading your blog-- perhaps I need to be a better friend and surround myself with more positive people! I've been a little down lately-- now I have a resolution.

Tiffini said...

hmm... definitely interesting. i do believe to some degree that we thrive/suffer from one another's energy. maybe it's because i've always been really sensitive to the emotions of those around me... sometimes i internalize and read into things way more than i need to!

but, on the other hand, we're ultimately the steward of our own individual behavior and attitudes. the 3-degree thing can become a really convenient cop-out...

Brooke said...

I didn't find out I was pregnant until I was almost 7 weeks :) It wasn't planned, or expected. . . so I wasn't watching for it. I still am not too "excited", and am sure that will change as soon as I can keep food down.

JLJ said...

I especially agree with the statement in the last paragraph "happiness doesn’t come only from having deep, heart-to-heart talks. It also comes from having daily exposure to many small moments of contagious happiness."

That is so interesting because I've noticed that I have a hard time shaking off bad feelings when a stranger is rude to me. Really, it will take me hours to get over it. I'm not offended or angry, just hurt. On the other hand, when a random person is kind to me, or friendly with my kids it really does make my day.