Wellness does not happen in isolation or because of one behavior, it is the manifestation of myriad habits that are practiced regularly and formed over a lifetime. However, that is where the story ends but not where it begins. In functional medicine, we focus on affecting the foundation of well-being or disease and when it comes to behavior, social networks are at the base. For decades, researchers have been diving into issues surrounding the ways we develop and maintain habits. Over the last 10 years, especially with the rise in obesity and related diseases, studies continually point to our “tribe” or the people that we are influenced by as one of the primary factors that predicts our behavior. For those looking to improve health, here are 5 ways to Build a Wellness Tribe.
As humans, we gravitate towards individuals or groups with similar interests and lifestyles. This concept, Social Comparison Theory, was explained in 1954 by Leon Festinger. He found that we are all driven to realize accurate self-evaluation and by comparing ourselves to others, we create those evaluations. Validating and feeling good about self-evaluation is a lot easier when we spend time around similar people. In fact, a 2014 study found that people that are obese and live in areas where obesity is common are much happier than obese people that live in areas that have a high population of fit people. On subconscious levels, we form groups with subtle commonalities and proximity to boost connection and validation whether that is parents forming friendships over the commonality of having kids or smokers forming friendships because of the frequent interaction during smoke-breaks. This begins in childhood with our families and continues throughout life as we develop friendships with people that engage in the same activities or have similar life situations.
On the surface, this is great and made a lot of sense thousands of years ago as we traveled as nomads while isolated in tribes. However, today this is a dual edged sword when it comes to changing behaviors. Nicholas Christakis, a well-known physician and researcher, has discussed this concept on the popular TED network explaining that we are directly influenced by our social network and that depending on how big the network is and how central we are to that network, our behavior can be predicted based on the behavior of the network. The more central you are, the more likely you are to be influenced. This is awesome if the network is healthy and prosperous but what if you are smack-dab in the middle of a network that is plagued with bad habits and high rates of disease? The truth is that if your network tends to have unhealthy habits, you do as well, and you are staying in that network because those people validate your choices. However, if you are motivated to change your behavior and lead a healthier life, you are “shooting yourself in the foot” by associating with that network. A 2016 study co-published by Dr. Christakis found that individuals that were trying to lose weight tended to increase interactions with other heavy people while decreasing interactions with thinner people and had little success losing weight. Fewer weight-loss-seekers increased interactions with thin people but those that did had a higher likelihood of losing weight.
This study supports that idea that we are more likely to increase behaviors that support health if we are surrounded by people that have already adopted those behaviors. This is easier said than done, though. Most of us are not going to break off lifelong friendships and create an entirely new social network to increase wellness, in fact that could also have negative consequences to our health. However, finding people that inspire us and practice the habits that we are seeking to develop can be done without saying an abrupt adios to our existing tribe. This is how to make it happen:
- JOIN A CLUB OR SOCIAL GROUP This should be a specific group with specific meeting times such as a hiking club, walking club, running club, etc. This is very different than joining a gym or an online group where you can maintain anonymity. That type of membership does not lend itself to relationships or accountability. By joining a group that is small and focused on an activity or goal, you can build a new community that is connected around a healthy behavior.
- SIGN UP FOR A SERIES OF CLASSES If you are looking to develop healthy habits but you don’t know where to start, sign up for a class that will help you cultivate new skills and introduce you to people that have the same interest. This can be anything from a writing class to a cooking class if it adds to your ability to experience better emotional, physical, spiritual or mental health. You will gain a new skill and likely meet similarly-minded people while you do it.
- ENGAGE 2 FRIENDS A triple-buddy-system is helpful for staying on track. Finding two friends that are motivated to diverge from the group-mentality of your social circle provides accountability and motivation. In this case, two is better than one because even if one friend gets sick or must cancel, there is another friend to keep you moving. A large group lacks the intimacy and accountability to stay on track and similarly a duo risks that one partner flakes out and the other is left to dwindling motivation. Be specific with how you are going to keep each other engaged by setting meeting times and small but attainable goals.
- SEEK OUT EXPERTS AND PAY THEM If you want to quit smoking, start a meditation practice or train for a 5k, find an expert to give you the tools you need. While you may have a work-acquaintance that runs marathons, that does not mean that they are qualified to teach you to run or that they have the time to dedicate to you. By paying for an expert’s time, you are committing funds and they are committing their time and expertise to helping you reach a goal or develop a habit. The investment means that you are serious and ready to put money on it.
- CHANGE THE PLAN If your network of friends tends to socialize over drinks, pizza and movies or other activities that are not health-promoting, change the plan. Next time you are slated to get together, suggest getting together for a game of ultimate Frisbee, a hike, an activity-based class or a new experience that is not associated with your typical “fall backs”. This is how you can begin to take the lead in your network without having to stand on a soapbox. Gentle suggestions that reshape the way you connect while increasing the amount of time you spend around healthy influencers means that you are more likely to develop the habits you need to live well.
…and as promised, a new recipe to fuel you in 2018…
Italian Cannellini Beans
Yields 4 servings
Prep time 10 Minutes
Cook time 15 minutes
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 can diced organic tomatoes
- ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
- 2 cups cooked cannellini beans (pre-cooked or canned)
- ¼ tsp. dried bay leaf
- ¼ tsp. dried rosemary
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 2 tbsp. fresh basil
- Olive oil for drizzling
- Grated parmesan (optional)
- Heat oil in medium sauce pan until glossy
- Add diced onion and minced garlic and cook until translucent
- Add red pepper, bay leaf and rosemary and stir for one minute.
- Add drained beans and can of tomatoes (with fluid) and increases heat to medium high for 5 minutes.
- Stir in salt and transfer to serving dish
- Sprinkle with parmesan and chopped fresh basil, drizzle with olive oil and serve.