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What influence do our friendships have on our habits?

Have you ever declared an abstinence from drinking alcohol, reduction in your coffee intake or consumption of biscuits and/or cakes. Only to have a friend manage to entice you to indulge in that very same pleasure a short while later. Your reasonable, and well rationalised, explanation for the deviation off course is. You didn’t know the previous last time was to be the last time, so you wanted to enjoy your pleasure one last time before it is gone for good.

And then proceed to make the same declaration of abstinence one week, one month, one day later?

I’m sure it has happened to more of us than we would readily admit. Fortunately there is a way to beat this seemingly never ending cycle. By choosing to practice new habits within relationships that foster environments where practice of the new habit is encouraged.

What is Friendship?

According to the Collins English dictionary, friendship is “a relationship between two or more friends”. And a friend is defined as “someone who you know well and like, but who is not related to you”.

Outside of the dictionary definition, in the context of social sciences, friendship is defined as a relationship between two or more people. With mutual feelings of care, respect, admiration, concern and/or love.

The role or purpose of a friendship could be to fulfil the need of inclusion, affection, identity, independence, safety, competency, freedom to express emotions, spontaneity, play or self-control/rational thought.

Why are Friendships Important?

Friendships are important because they can provide a safe space to express your needs and emotions. Give you a sense of identity and feel competent in the autonomy you have over your life. Friends partner with you in the joyous times and get rallied up for any spontaneous activity. All while showing the greatest amount of compassion when things don’t go as planned. And help to keep you grounded when pushing your limits.

Friends are the family you choose

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How do Friendships Influence our Habits?

As we go through life our friends, and friendships, will change. Some friendships will be life-long (or at the very least feel like they are). Some friendships will be short lived, and only have significance during a specific time period, event or circumstance.

On the podcast The Happiness Lab, Yale professor Tamar Gendler, summarises Aristotle’s classifications for the purposes of friendship. And introduces his work, which outlines three different types of friendships; shallow, medium and deep.

Aristotle's three friendship types:
  • Shallow friendships are situational. You’re friends because you get something from them, and they get something from you. Friendships with work colleagues could fall into this category. Your friendship could be based on working together on a project or being a sounding board for opinions on a particular management style or television series, for example.
  • Medium friendships are contextual. You’re friends because you enjoy eachothers company, but the time you spend together is dependent on specific circumstances. Friendships with friends of friends or friends from organised sports/classes could fall into this category.
  • Deep friendships are mutual. You’re friends because you have an appreciation for one anothers core values. You each want the other to succeed in achieving their goals as much as you want yourself to succeed.

Within each of these friendship types, Aristotle argues, our habits and behaviours will differ. And that it is within Deep Friendships where we will receive the support needed to change or pursue habits that are in alignment with our personal values.

Deep friendships will have a positive impact on your ability to keep to your long term goals and practice habits that align with the person you want to be. Surrounding yourself with situational or contextual friends will influence the adoption of habits and behaviours that are in pursuit of instant gratification. Which, Aristotle argues, are rooted in indulgence and derive short-lived pleasures.

How can Friendships Help to Improve our Habits?

Changing a habit takes time. In a podcast episode, Happiness Lessons from the Ancients: Aristotle, from The Happiness Lab. Yale professor Tamar Gendler introduces Aristotle’s ideology that habits should be practiced and reinforced as often as possible. And that friendships which allow you to cultivate, and reinforce, a habit or behaviour will aid the process of adoption, and it becoming a natural part of how you behave. Friendships that present obstacles or barriers to the practice and reinforcement of a habit or behaviour, will reduce the prospect of it becoming a natural part of your behaviour.

This applies to every habit. Whether it is seen as a “good” or a “bad” habit. Aristotle believes in order to improve or develop “good” habits, habits that are aligned to your personal values and keep you in a state of doing/feeling good. They should be practiced, and shared, with those with whom you have a Deep friendship. The influence those relationships have on habits is based on a mutual interest in seeing eachother succeed.

When considered carefully all relationships can have a positive influence on habits

Be careful not to judge friendships in a detached way, or too harshly. All types of friendships are beneficial. Habits and behaviours you wish to cultivate, that are related to activities you share with friends in a Shallow or Medium friendship. Will have opportunities to be practiced and reinforced within their respective settings. Think, improving a work-related skill (shallow friendship) or improving a specific yoga practice (medium friendship). 

It’s also important to keep in mind friendships are fluid. Friendships that start as shallow or medium could develop into deep friendships. The most important thing to consider, when cultivating a new habit, is the environment where it will be practiced. Will the environment allow for it to be practiced frequently, will it be supported within the environment and are there opportunities for reinforcement. It is by assessing the environment that you will be able to identify which friend to share your goal with, to give you the best chance of achieving it.

By considering the influence relationships have on behaviour. It makes it possible to make an informed decision that will help to cultivate a habit in an environment, with the best conditions to succeed.

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