Are You Overlooking This Giant Influence on Your Habits?

In Maxims and Reflections, Goethe wrote, “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are; if I know how you spend your time, then I know what might become of you.”

As I was doing the initial research for my forthcoming masterpiece of a book, about habit-formation, I tended to focus on strategies that I use as an individual.

I realized, however, that while it’s easy to imagine myself operating in isolation,  in fact, other people’s actions and habits exert tremendous influence on me, as mine do on them.

All the strategies of habit-formation deserve to be—and have been—the subject of entire books, but the Strategy of Other People is the strategy that’s hardest to distill into a single chapter. Our influence on each other’s habits is a vast subject. And it’s one of the most powerful, sometimes almost irresistible, strategies.

For instance, my husband, in particular, makes a big difference to my habits. In a phenomenon known as “health concordance,” couples’ health habits and statuses tend to merge over time. One partner’s health behaviors—habits related to sleep, eating, exercise, doctor visits, use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana—influence those behaviors in a partner. If one partner has Type 2 diabetes, the other partner faces a significant increase in the risk of developing it, as well. If one partner gives up cigarettes or alcohol, the other is more likely to quit.

My husband’s unwavering commitment to exercise has helped me stay dedicated. I also caught his habit of reading multiple books at one time, and buying books even when I have a huge pile I haven’t read yet. (Before we were married, I read one book at a time, and never allowed myself to acquire more than five unread books).

Also, some of my habits bothered him so much that I gave them up. For some reason, he objected to my snacking in bed. The things we do for love.

To quote another great thinker, in Letters from a Stoic, Seneca advised, “Associate with people who are likely to improve you.” This turns out to be very effective, because we do so readily pick up habits — good and bad — from each other.

How about you? Can you think of times when you’ve caught a good or bad habit from someone around you? Or when someone has caught your habit? A few years ago, I dramatically changed my eating habits (that’s a story for another day, and an example of the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt,  but if you’re curious, check out Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat), and I’ve noticed that my change has led to changes in other people, as my habits rubbed off on them.

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  • Christine

    “Never allowed myself to acquire more than five unread books” Wait, what? That’s like eating one potato chip and putting the bag away! :-)

    • gretchenrubin

      I know! Ever since I broke that habit, I’ve been going nuts.

    • ADL

      Ha! That makes me think of my grandmother. She doles out exactly 5 pringles every time! She does this with other “treats” too. :)

  • Penelope Schmitt

    First–what a great image you chose to go with your post, Gretchen.
    I do ‘catch fire’ from others who share the same interests, and often ‘let them inspire me’ to spend freely on quilting and opera recordings.
    I have had to strive to overcome the urge to join in overindulging in food with friends. The ‘YOLO’ loophole is the one I have to guard against in these situations.
    I find that I do NOT drink alcohol when I am with my non-drinking man friend.. On the other hand, his familiarity with all the good things technology can bring to life has communicated itself to me. Those are both good things!
    So yes, I am influenced by the company I keep. I do not ‘hang out’ with athletes much, which is probably a shame. But I don’t hang out with people who have seriously self-destructive habits either.

    I have heard Seneca’s idea expressed as “Stick with the winners.”
    This may not be the ‘be kind and inclusive to everyone’ advice my parents gave me when I was a child, nor would I tell an adolescent to think of ‘the winners’ as ‘the IN crowd.’ But . . .
    I do think it is excellent advice and good practical advice to recognize and make friends with those who are ‘winning’ at the kinds of positive efforts you are trying to ‘win’ at too–exercise or proper eating or wise spending or anything else you want to be good at. Even people who have a positive approach to life or to coping with a difficult situation are desirable companions if that is what you seek to do yourself.

  • R

    I love this! Actually, I love everything you write, but almost never comment. Sometimes I nod my head vigorously while I read though.
    Myself and two other friends from my mother’s group have “caught” our parenting philosophies from each other. As time goes by and we continue to add babies we have all become more “attachment parenting” minded, and drifted further from the rest of the group. None of us had these beliefs when we first met seven years ago, and it is impossible to pinpoint who first brought the ideas to the attention of the others. Yet we now have a lovely, warm, caring echo-chamber.
    On the flip side, I’ve recently started working in an office that has a very unhealthy eating culture and all my co-workers are overweight. This very stark contrast between my own eating habits and theirs is actually strengthening my resolve, in a way that a healthier workplace would make saying no to the twice weekly birthday cakes difficult.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Oh my, the work environment can be a real food trap. Good for you for keeping your resolve!

  • carla birnberg

    YES. we are INDEED the sum of the people which whom we surround ourselves.

  • camdancer

    My husband has the very annoying habit of catching habits but then doing them better! I’ve run for years but am a slow plodder. My husband now runs and just gets faster and faster. I bake cakes. My husband bakes cakes but makes up his own recipes. My brother-in-law wrote a book with his wife. My husband wrote one on his own (and I think it is better, but I’m probably biased). The list goes on.
    The thing is that once he takes up a habit, he really goes for it and immerses himself in it 100%. He is much more dedicated and simply works harder than I do. That is why he does better at things. Drives me nuts! ;-)

  • Lisa H

    My semi-religious habit of exercising has rubbed off on my husband. His search for personal growth has rubbed off on me if somewhat influenced by my thinking “he’s making me look bad” as a motivating factor. I can’t wait to hear about the strategy of the lightning bolt. I read “Why We Get Fat” back in February and I haven’t touched a refined carb since then and it’s been amazingly easy after a lifelong struggle with my diet. I walked away from alcohol 30+ years ago with the same finality so I anxiosly await your take on why this works for some things and not others. This sort of thing fascinates me as well and I can’t wait for your new book to come out.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that you’re intrigued by the book! It has been so fascinating to explore this subject.
      And sounds like the Lightning Bolt hit you too, after reading Why We Get Fat.

    • sewyuleknead

      Thank you for responding about the book “Why We Get Fat”. I’m reading it now and am fascinated by the theory being revealed.

      I’ve been meaning to re-watch a Ted Talk video that I saved from quite a while ago and now that I have, I am surprised to find the same philosophy talked about in both the book and the Ted video. The speaker is Peter Attia and his talk is titled ‘Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem?’ I hope that you will watch it. I’m glad that the theory is getting out there and being talked about.

  • Camille

    I used to wake up just before my alarm clock and to get off my bed right after the first ring, fresh and ready for the day. Unfortunately, my partner whom with I moved recently (8 months ago) isn’t a morning person. He can spend ONE hours maybe 1h30 snoozing the alarm clock. At the beginning, I still got off the bed quickly and prepared myself. But little by little I stayed a bit longer in bed…….And now… 8 months later…. I can’t find the courage to get up and spend so many time snoozing the alarm clock like him. And I regret this because I hate loosing my time…..
    This is really a bad habit I caught from him and I really want to quit this.

  • Lynn

    Yes, I’ve definitely seen this. I’ve been lucky my whole life to have mentors who have “walked the talk” and helped me become a better person by sharing positive habits. My grandmother was my first mentor. She taught all of her grandkids the importance of performing frequent small acts of love and kindness for others. For her, it was what people do because we are all here to help each other. Even now that she’s gone, I still feel her with me through the habits she
    instilled in me. No matter how bad my day may be, knowing that I’ve done something for someone else lifts me up.

    I’ve also seen the flip side of this. I once had a job with people who gossiped and were downright mean to each other. I saw that it got harder and harder to ‘stay afloat’ there, because I had to constantly fight to not allow those types of remarks to pass my lips. It showed me just how lucky I’ve been in my life to have not experienced that situation before.

  • Jeanne

    I think that as a Moderator, it’s easy for me to encourage an Abstainer to loosen up a bit. Never on anything serious like drugs or alcohol, but mostly on foods. I’ve heard all my life about setting a good example, but I have not yet once seen anyone pick up on an example of mine. I eat a fairly balanced diet and get plenty of sleep. My hub has picked up on neither of these after 33 years of observation. He eats like a 5-year-old and is chronically sleep deprived. We walk up and down the neighborhood almost every day, and yet, though all of our neighbors see us and know who we are, none of them has followed our example. Maybe it works with kids, but adults seem to pretty much do whatever they want, and are not interested in what better examples others are setting. Maybe it just depends on how deep seated the current behaviors are.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve seen this with people in my own life. Moderators feel uncomfortable with the Abstainers’ bright-line rules, and with all best intentions, urge them to indulge a little bit. This strategy works for Moderators, but not for Abstainers!

      • Gillian

        Completely agree. A moderator is not doing an abstainer any favour by encouraging them to “loosen up”. You are sabotaging their efforts and undoing a lot of their success. Returning to abstention after falling off the wagon is extremely difficult. I am a moderator in some areas and an abstainer in others.

  • PolarSamovar

    I notice this so much! About eight years ago I moved to a small town with a bad economy but an active art/small farm/outdoor recreation oriented community. When I lived in the city I was always fighting bad financial habits – eating out even though I love to cook, shopping too much, stuff like that. Where I live now, nobody eats out (too expensive), everybody thrifts and clothing-swaps, and typical weekend fun involves a hike and a potluck and maybe a volunteer gig or community event. I no longer have to fight my bad habits — they don’t even tempt me. That thing about how you don’t have to be rich, you just have to have 10% more than your neighbors and you’ll *feel* rich? SO true.

    • Trixie

      That sounds great! Are people there generally content and less stressed out? Makes me think of being in my 20s, when none of us had money but had great companionship.

      • PolarSamovar

        I think they reach their natural level of stress vs. contentment. At least in my social circle, there’s no status associated with being stressed out and busy, so people don’t brag about it like they do in other places I’ve lived. Such a relief.

        On the other hand, it IS hard to make a living.

  • AnnaKate

    I grew up with parents who live walking distance to their church, and go there every day. God is the center of their world. They essentially live their life for God. Community and service to God through working in their church is how they live their life. My boyfriend also is closely connected to a church as he goes to one every Sunday and sings in a choir so he also goes to church on Thursday nights. His church is his family’s church and is very important to him. It connects him both to his family, and a sense of community through going there. I am also going there, and find great peace and sense of belonging in having that church as my community home base. My parents and boyfriend also take good care of their health. We all have health issues, and do the things that maintain our good health. We also eat well and take care of our health that way. We exercise and they are of normal healthy weight. Creative things are important to us. My family sing at their churches. My step-mom and Dad garden, and I see them at their church.