Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reading This Blog Can Make You Skinny

In early June, I invited my female friends who lived in the D.C. area to a ladies' tea at Teaism to help celebrate my birthday.  The invite list included people from all my groups of friends - my single friends, my writing friends, married friends, work friends - and I encouraged each of them to invite any neat woman who might enjoy attending.   We did not all know each other at the tea, but we all had at least one friend in common.  As you can see from the smiles in the photo, we had a great afternoon together.  

Last Sunday’s New York Times had an interesting piece in its magazine about the influence of social networks entitled, “Is Happiness Catching?”  You can read it online at:

It explores the idea that good and bad behaviors “pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses.”  This can mean that if you hang out with skinny, happy people who don’t smoke, you are likelier to be a skinny, happy non-smoker.  The opposite is true as well.  Spending time with people who are unhappy, fat or addicted to nicotine can increase your chances to become or stay that way too.  The influence can even skip a connection, so a friend of a friend who is not your friend can still impact your behavior.

The negative consequences of this are pretty apparent, and the cynical, still overweight or even obese part of me can think, “Great, another reason to ostracize fat people.”  If smoking is your addiction, you can insert smoker for fat people.  Social ostracism certainly won’t help the unhappy either, but I can think of examples from my life that back up the article’s conclusions.  I have been known to bond over the plate with certain groups of friends, and I’ve had friends who have influenced me to be more active and play sports.  There have been people in my life who are Debbie Downers – so much so that I started limiting contact with them.

From the title of the article, it’s obvious that its author Clive Thompson chose to focus more on the possible, positive aspects of this phenomenon, and I’d like to do the same.  The last two paragraphs of the article sums it up well:

Yet there is also, the two scientists argue, something empowering about the idea that we are so entwined.  “Even as we are being influenced by others, we can influence others,” Christakis told me when we first met.  “And therefore the importance of taking actions that are beneficial to others is heightened.  So this network thing can cut both ways, subverting our ability to have free will, but increasing, if you will, the importance of us having free will.”

As Fowler pointed out, if you want to improve the world with your good behavior, math is on your side.  For most of us, within three degrees we are connected to more than 1,000 people – all of whom we can theoretically help make healthier, fitter and happier just by our contagious example.  “If someone tells you that you can influence 1,000 people,” Fowler said, “it changes your way of seeing the world.”

I love this!  By writing this blog, Trish and I are helping ourselves meet our goal of becoming and staying healthy writers, but we are also potentially helping thousands of others do that too.  That’s powerful stuff.  Watching two of my friends lose more than 50 pounds each in 2008 convinced me to try yet again to lose weight in 2009.  In fact one of them can be seen in the photo above.  I'm pictured in the front right-hand corner of the photo, and she is seated across from me and wearing the purple sweater.  

I know I’ve influenced colleagues at work to think about making some changes in their life to become more fit and maintain a healthier weight.  My example has also encouraged some of my friends and family members to try again.  Hopefully reading this blog really can help make you skinny.  Passing this new lifestyle on is great, and it helps me stick with it more.  Isn’t it wonderful that you can help others by helping yourself?




Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) on September 17, 2009 at 9:19 AM said...

Another great post, Michelle. I've definitely been inspired by friends who have dedicated themselves to positive changes -- you and Stephanie Rowe (who will be guesting with us here soon) on weight loss and fitness and Theresa Ragan (who'll also be guesting) about her positive attitude.

I feel fortunate that I never picked up the smoking habit because my dad is a chimney. Of course, my lungs would probably stage a revolt even if I tried.

Anonymous said...

I think it's awesome! I know I've been inspired (and have learned a lot) by reading this blog. :)

I think attitude (toward smoking/weight/life in general) is very contagious. I've had some friends in my life who were very negative people-- the kind who only call you up when they want to complain about the (many) things that are bad in their lives. For years I tried to be supportive, but I finally realized that some of these relationships were draining more positive energy away from my life than the friendship was bringing me. It was very hard for me to walk away from those relationships, but doing so gave me more time and energy to devote to the positive relationships that, in turn, made me feel more positive about all the good things in my life. When I'm feeling very positive, it's much easier to make big (and challenging) changes in my life-- such as exercising regularly and eating healthier.

Michelle Butler on September 17, 2009 at 6:36 PM said...

Thanks, Trish! I look forward to Stephanie and Theresa's posts.

Thanks, Laura! Good for you for removing the negative people from your life. Another thing that can help is to not react to them - don't let them get you down. Easier said than done, of course, but controlling/being aware of your reactions can be very helpful.

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) on September 18, 2009 at 12:31 AM said...

Laura, it's so hard to be around negative people, isn't it? Not an easy thing to deal with, but congrats to you for doing so.

Theresa Ragan on October 5, 2009 at 4:14 PM said...

Loved this blog, Michelle. Sorry it took me so long to read it! The title grabbed me, of course, and I had to read it! :) When I hang out with people who complain a lot, I do find myself complaining more. It's weird how that works!? And when I'm around someone who's excited about life, I get excited and I go home feeling motivated to do something...anything! Thanks for sharing, Michelle. Love it! Just knowing I can help 1,000 people does inspire me to be a good influence with eating, exercising and being positive.

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