The following pronouncement might not come as a big surprise to you:
Who you hang out with matters.
Entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Jim Rohn has gone so far as to say that, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Negativity in College
As a college professor, I definitely see a lot of negativity in my students. Although many are happy, it seems as if a good (and growing) number of them are bothered by or even riddled with anxiety, stress, and even apathy. In fact, as I discussed in a previous blog post:
“A report published by Dr. Jean Twenge a number of years ago supports this observation. Twenge found that children in the 1980s and early 1990s showed levels of anxiety that were equivalent to child psychiatric patients in the 1950s (and I’m sure the level of anxiety has probably increased even more in the last 20 years).”
In addition to increases in various types of psychological problems, I’ve also noticed (or maybe just become more aware of) more and more students who seem to be pursuing careers they really don’t care that much about. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard students say some form of the following statement:
“I really don’t like my major. I don’t like going to my classes. But I’m 3 years into it, so I might as well just finish my degree, get a good job, make a lot of money, and then life will be swell.”
Two things specifically strike me about students who make these statements:
1. Their belief that making a lot of money and becoming “successful” will automatically make them happy. Although this notion is widespread, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way. In fact, according to psychological research, once people are able to pay their bills, additional money doesn’t seem to produce more happiness. In fact, some have suggested that the opposite is true: Being happy causes you to do things that result in money and success. Although I think many of my students understand this on some level (maybe from seeing their rich, but miserable, uncle), they nevertheless forget it as they pursue their careers.
2. The sound of dread, anxiety, and lack of passion that is so evident in their voices when they talk about their future careers. It pains me to think that these students might spend many, many hours of their lives working on jobs that drain the life out of them.
Now, there are likely many reasons why students (and others) have these negative beliefs and feelings.
Pressure from parents and professors to get good grades.
The mistaken belief that they have to have their entire lives figured out by the time they graduate from college.
Unrealistic expectations about what it means to be “successful”
And so on…
But there’s also one other reason, I believe, why some students are not as happy as they otherwise might be.
The Impact of Your Posse
In a word, here’s what it comes down to: friends.
Your amigos. Your buddies. Your pals. Your comrades. Your squad.
Yes, your posse can have a big impact on how you feel, how you think, and even on who you eventually become.
Let me explain.
When we hang around others, we consistently “reinforce” and “punish” the things they say and do.
For example, when our friends say or do something we like, we flash them a smile, pat them on the back, and tell them we agree—all of which make it more likely that they’ll say the same thing again some time in the future. Eventually, it’s what they come to believe.
Similarly, when friends do things we don’t like, we frown, shake our heads unapprovingly, and tell them to STFU—all of which “punish” their behavior and make it less likely to occur again. Eventually, they might stop believing and acting in certain ways.
They do the same to us, and we, in effect, mold each other in ways that affect who we ultimately become—how we feel, what we believe, and even how we act. In fact, as this classic study by psychologist Joel Greenspoon shows, we often do this to each other without even being aware of it.
No wonder we frequently find ourselves in the company of people who have similar political beliefs, musical interests, and hobbies. We shape each other in ways that often make us quite similar to one another. No wonder Jim Rohn suggested that we’re the average of the five people we hang around with the most.
And no wonder when we hang around negative people, we find ourselves getting a little (or a lot) negative, too.
Are Your Friends Turning You Into Debbie Downer?
There seem to be numerous ways this plays out in college (and in other settings, too).
1. For one, as I noted above, many students don’t like their majors and classes, and so they end up complaining about them. If they do this with friends who feel the same way, they end up reinforcing each other’s negative statements about their academic experiences. And so the negative feelings continue.
2. There’s also a prevailing belief that college, like work, is supposed to be unenjoyable (or at least the academic part of it). Given this far-reaching belief, it’s almost as if it becomes a competition to see whose days are the most unpleasant. Friends try to “one up” each other (“I haven’t slept for 3 days!” or “I studied for 15 hours straight!”) and end up receiving lots of social praise from each other for doing these extreme things (many of which have a negative effect on their moods).
3. Finally, as a society, we often don’t pay much attention to each other when we’re in good moods—it’s almost as if we’re annoyed by happy people! But when things start to go bad, we show up in spades to support our friends (which is good!). Unfortunately, this can backfire when a student, for example, learns that she only gets attention when she talks about her “miserable” life or posts a negative Facebook status. She enjoys the attention (as most of us do) and behaves accordingly to get it.
In short, we’re often responsible for turning each other into Debbie Downer.
Your Posse and Your Passion
Importantly, who we hang out with also has a big impact on the passion we experience in our lives. I’ve found, for example, that when my students hang around others who believe in the idea of finding what you love to do and pursuing it, they get motivated to do the same.
Similarly, if we have friends who like to shoot down our ideas or who always talk about how life is completely unfair, it’s no wonder we start to feel the same way they do. As they say, misery loves company.
When I talk to students about passion and choosing careers they enjoy, I see the effects of this “social punishment” first-hand. Rather than entertaining the idea of doing something they love, my students come up with excuses (as I’ve done plenty of times before). They might mention a career that truly interests them, but then they quickly follow it with, “That’s not possible” or “I’d never be successful doing that” or “It’s just too risky” or “That’s a stupid idea.”
The interesting thing is that we’re not born being so pessimistic and negative. My sons, for example, believe they can do anything they want when they grow up.
But somewhere along the way, that belief gets beaten out of us.
As I’ve discussed before, some of that “lack of belief” comes from parents and teachers.
But some of it, no doubt, comes from friends—negative friends who, unfortunately, don’t believe in themselves and who sometimes lead us to have the same self-defeating beliefs.
Maybe It’s Time to Re-evaluate Your Posse
Ultimately, your friends matter. Hang around five positive, motivated people, and you’re likely to feel the same way.
But hang around five negative people, and your life is likely to move in the same direction as theirs.
So, if you’re feeling less than positive about the direction in which you’re life is moving, or if you’re yearning to do something that lights you up but don’t think you have what it takes, maybe you need to take a close look at your friends.
If they’re not providing you with the type of positivity you want in your life, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your posse.
If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Have you had to deal with overly negative friends? How did it affect you? Please leave a comment below.
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