“Hell is – other people” comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous one-act play “No Exit” (1944). We are all afraid of being judged negatively by others, even if no one else is present; we still have an outstanding sense of the presence of others. None of us exist in a vacuum or in complete isolation from others so we can never escape being influenced by what we think others’ are thinking about us. Evolution fashioned us to be social creatures. From the time of infancy, we are aware and attuned to those around us, first our caregivers and later to our peers and larger community. Friends are supposed to be good for us; those who have strong friendships experience less stress, recuperate more quickly from heart attacks and are likely to live longer than the companionless. They are even less vulnerable to the common cold. So other people can and do influence our immediate physiology as well as our ongoing health, because the company we keep has the power to influence our daily choices and so our well-being. But not all friendships and relationships are so beneficial because growing evidence suggests disease spreads through social networks. For instance, if you have a close friend who becomes obese, your chances of becoming obese increase by 171% (Christakis & Fowler, 2007). Indeed, some research examining whether depressive symptoms in one person were associated with similar symptoms in friends, co-workers, siblings, spouses and neighbours does indicate a social clustering of depressive symptoms, particularly among women (Rosenquist et al., 2011). So, if social networks can make us sick, can they also make us healthier? ……. They certainly can! Quitting smoking spreads through social networks. If your peers and significant others give up you have a 67% decreased chance of smoking (Christakis & Fowler 2008). Other findings show that the “spread” of happiness is a real phenomenon. Having a sibling or friend who is happy and living within one mile raises the probability of being happy by 25%. Living with a spouse who is happy has a similar effect (Fowler & Christakis, 2008). Other research on young people also confirmed the spread of happiness, showing that having happy friends raised the probability of recovery from depression (Hill et al., 2015).
The support of family and friends can also motivate us in the pursuit of fitness. We train for longer and more often if we do it with a friend. So What about joining a running club? But surely running clubs are only for overly-healthy, fanatical, type-A, pioneers with bad knees who never take a day’s rest. Well actually no, preconceived notions create fear and paralysis. Not only does running in a group initiate great improvements in performance, like any team sport it creates camaraderie and lasting memories. On wet, cold mornings after drinking too much wine the night before, the commitment to running with a group will force the donning of lycra. For some it may get the competitive juices flowing again. Many will unearth previously hidden talent and realise their potential. They will have opportunity to compete against and run with runners of similar ability or better. Others will enjoy easy group jogs and chats. The truth is that running has never been healthier or more popular (Knechtle et al., 2015), club runners can be found at the front middle and back of most races, so there should be no anxiety in relation to being “slow”. In our modern lives maybe it is “hell is -social media”. In our Facebook culture we’re not having a life unless we are planning it, photographing it and gathering small shreds of insincere jealousy in the form of likes, maybe the simplicity of just meeting friends for a jog might just be our salvation.
Find your nearest athletic club: www.athleticsireland.ie/clubs
Christakis NA & Fowler JH. (2007). The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. N Engl J Med 357, 370-379.
Christakis NA & Fowler JH. (2008). The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network. New England Journal of Medicine 358, 2249-2258.
Fowler JH & Christakis NA. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. Bmj 337, a2338.
Hill EM, Griffiths FE & House T. (2015). Spreading of healthy mood in adolescent social networks. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282.
Knechtle B, Rosemann T, Zingg MA & Rüst CA. (2015). Increase in participation but decrease in performance in age group mountain marathoners in the ‘Jungfrau Marathon’: a Swiss phenomenon? SpringerPlus 4, 523.
Rosenquist JN, Fowler JH & Christakis NA. (2011). Social network determinants of depression. Mol Psychiatry 16, 273-281.