My phone buzzes with a text.
“Who’s running?” asks my friend Ankoor.
🏃♀️ replies Eileen; she’s in.
I perform a slow mental wince at the thought of dragging my body 3 miles in the North Carolina heat, but I already know I’m going to give in anyway. I pretty much always do. You see, my husband, friends and I go running together once a week before we gather around a pitcher of beer and food truck fare. Now I’m not afraid to admit that I’m not exactly what you’d call a “runner.” I will not be sharing my fastest mile with you today. There hasn’t been a single Thursday after a long day of work that I’ve wanted to go for a run – and yet, Thursday after Thursday, I show up for my friends.
There was nothing intentional about the creation of an accountabilibuddy text thread. We weren’t looking for a motivation solution. No one said, “Hey, don’t you think we would be more likely to show up if we checked in with each other before each run?” And yet, this small act of social alignment has kept me on track (no pun intended) week after week.
In fact, a great deal of research shows that social support (from our family, friends, and significant others) can hold us to our health goals. Social support works by moving us to act in ways that we believe are popular or socially desirable, and we are motivated by words of encouragement — not only when we receive encouraging words, but also (actually, even more so) when we help others.
When we are supported, we experience better health outcomes. And there’s more than one type of social support. Both practical and emotional support are correlated with adherence to treatment recommendations, but in different ways. While practical social support (splitting the cost of a group tennis lesson, or sharing a ride to the soccer game) may be a more direct contributor to health, emotional social support may indirectly influence health factors by boosting mood and self-esteem and lowering stress (other people make us feel good, so we take better care of ourselves as a result). Social support may even alter our perception of how challenging a situation is. In one amusing study, for example, researchers found that people estimate hills to be less steep when they are with friends (as opposed to people judging hills alone or with non-friends).
But other people don’t just make us feel better; they can also hold us accountable by checking in on our progress to our goals. The Center for Advanced Hindsight’s Julie Miller argues that as adults we have (partially) lost the frankness that we held as children, and along with it some of the benefits of social accountability. To be perceived as agreeable, we manage others’ impressions of us and resort to lowest-common-denominator conversations about the weather and sports rather than important but sensitive-feeling questions about our medical conditions or whether we are saving enough for retirement. For the most part, we forget to leverage the most powerful motivators that we have access to: our social connections.