How your friends can influence your mood and behaviour

Cultivating strong relationships can have a positive effect on our health and wellbeing.

Friends make the world go round, or so the saying goes. But it seems their influence may be greater than we think.

A growing body of research suggests that just as viral diseases such as the common cold can spread from person to person, so too can actions such as going to the gym or signing up for yoga.

A study by Harvard University in the US says there’s a ripple effect with social or behavioural contagion – so your happiness or good health habits act like a virus, influencing your friends and others in your broader social network.

According to science, your chances of being happy increase if you’re surrounded by cheerful people.

Happy spouses and partners help, too. Think of the couples you know who radiate good vibes – one person is usually influencing the other.

It found this spread can be seen across up to three degrees of separation, so you can actually influence the friends of your friends’ friends.

The research also found the strength of the contagion depends on how close you live to the happy person and your relationship with them.

The strongest effect occurs if you have a happy friend who lives within 1.6km of you, giving you a 25 per cent chance of increased joy.

“People’s happiness depends on the happiness with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon,” the study found.

How our relationships influence our mood and behaviour

Clinical psychologist Michelle Pritchard, director of MindRight in Sydney, says there are several ways you can get the best out of your friendships as far as health and wellbeing goes, and be a positive influence to those around you.

Choose friends with a similar value system.

While diversity is great when it comes to your core posse, like-minded people work best. “Apart from anything else, they’ll keep you from being negatively influenced or compromised in your beliefs.”

Make friends with goal-oriented and positive people.

They will motivate and encourage you.

Similar interests are important.

“If you’re mad about mountaineering and kayaking, you’re probably not going to enjoy the company of someone who is happier indoors.”

Understand that no one is perfect.

Even the most optimistic people have bad days and can be grumpy and even rude. Look at a person’s overall character when evaluating whether they are a good influence in your life.

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Written by Liz McGrath