Our interactions with other people can have a strong influence on us – even the interactions that seem insignificant in the moment. Something as simple as a kind word from a stranger can prompt you to smile and feel a sense of warmth; it may even cause a shift in your attitude, changing the way you go about the rest of your day.
Of course, you are most deeply and powerfully influenced by the people closest to your heart. Four ways that family and friends commonly affect your life are:
The presence of loved ones affects your mood. Emotions are often contagious, in part, because people have “mirror” neurons in their brains that “mirror” what those around you are experiencing, allowing you feel empathy for them. So, when someone is generally upbeat, you are frequently more likely to feel more positive in their presence. Similarly, people who seem to travel with a raincloud above their head can leave you in a dark, foreboding mood.
This does not mean you should steer clear of someone just because they are unhappy. You may choose to support a friend who is struggling emotionally – just as you would want them to support you during difficult times. However, there is a problem when someone else’s distress becomes your predominant way of feeling.
How loved ones see you affects how you see yourself. When people see you in a positive or negative light, they treat you accordingly – and this influences your self-perceptions. In 1999, a group of researchers found that people become more like their ideal selves when they have a partner who sees them as they’d like to be. This “Michelangelo effect” was named after the legendary artist who created stone sculptures based on the images he saw in the raw material, just as partners help to shape their companion into the ideal self that they carry within. Of course, when partners or close friends see you in a less favorable light, that perception will affect you negatively. So, keep this in mind as you choose your partner and friends.
Loved ones influence your personal preferences and your lifestyle. This can be as simple as a friend encouraging you to listen to a new kind of music or wear a particular brand of shoes. But it can also significantly impact your lifestyle – such as when Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the movie Pulp Fiction notes, “My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, which pretty much makes me a vegetarian.”
Having a strong social network is associated with having a healthier, happier, and longer life. People who have close friends and social supports to turn to during difficult times tend to feel less stressed. Research has even shown that people with such social networks are often physically and emotionally healthier.
Given that your relationships shape the person you are and the person you are becoming, it is important to choose your friends and loved ones wisely. While you cannot choose family, you can choose the ways in which – and how much – you interact with them.
So, ask yourself what qualities you value in yourself. Also consider how a loved one might influence your life over the next one, five, or even ten years. Then when you are making plans to get together with people or looking for someone to connect with, choose those who will support and encourage you to have the future that you want.