Can Your Buddy’s Brother-In-Law Bring You Down?

What happens if your best friend’s sister gets divorced?

Or your office mate’s boyfriend quits smoking?

Or your neighbor’s husband loses his job?

Does it have any impact on you?

The answer is probably yes.  When someone who is one person removed from your inner circle experiences a decline or improvement in their wellbeing, it can have a direct impact on you.

In his new book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, author Tom Rath, along with coauthor Jim Harter, reveals that not only do the people directly around us influence our wellbeing, but so do our friend’s friends.

According to a Harvard study, our entire network impacts our wellbeing.  A thirty-year longitudinal study of more than 12,000 people who were all part of one interconnected network found that your odds of being happy increase by 25% if a direct connection in your network is happy.   The study found a similar effect for secondhand associations; if your friend’s friend is happy, the odds of your friend being happy increase by 15%, and the odds of youbeing happy increase by 10%.

Said another way, if your brother’s coworker is deliriously giddy, he’s increasing your personal happiness odds by 10%.  It might not sound like much, but consider the fact that a $10,000 increase in annual income is associated with just a 2% increased likelihood of being happy.  Statistically speaking, you’re probably better off having a happy boss than a generous one.

Unfortunately, happiness isn’t the only thing that spreads through social networks. So do negative habits and behaviors.  For example, you’re 61% more likely to smoke if you have a direct connection with a smoker.  At the second degree of separation, you’re still 29% more likely to smoke if your friend’s friend is a smoker.

Which might explain why, despite being a reasonably intelligent person, the summer I worked in a bar, I actually took to puffing Virginia Slims for a month. Fortunately, when I went back to college in the fall, my peers thought smoking was insane. Of course, they all drank like fish.  Which only further proves the study’s validity.  The habits, health and behavior of your social group have a direct impact on you.

We often assume that wealth and health are the secrets to happiness. But Rath, who leads Gallup’s workplace research and leadership consulting, says, “Much of what we think will improve our wellbeing is either misguided or plain wrong.”

Gallup’s Wellbeing Finder, a comprehensive assessment of people in more than 150 countries, revealed five universal, interconnected elements that shape our lives:  Career Wellbeing, Social Wellbeing, Financial Wellbeing, Physical Wellbeing and Community Wellbeing.   (You can view the results or create your own Wellbeing finder at

The secret of lasting wellbeing isn’t just one element; it’s all of them.   Rath writes, “Wellbeing is about the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities.  Most importantly, it’s about how these five elements interact.”

You can get rich and skinny, but if your social group is miserable and you’re not making a contribution to your community, chances are, you won’t feel like your life is very worthwhile.

And if your brother-in-law is fat, lonely, unhappy and broke, be careful.  It might be catching.

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. The founder and principal of McLeod & More, Inc, she specializes in sales and leadership training. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.” Visit for a short video intro.   Copyright 2010 Lisa Earle McLeod.  All rights reserved.

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