Surrounding Yourself With Positive People Isn’t Always the Best Choice

The world of self-help says we are who we hang out with — but should we really ditch our friends if they don’t measure up?

Photo: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

I’m a self-improvement junkie.

I have read endless articles on how to be kinder and more successful and more motivated and happier. I’ve read books on how to care more and how to care less and how to push through obstacles and how to own my truth. I’ve listened to podcasts on how to hustle and how to say no. I know all the benefits of self-care and why we should all find our passion. I know that if I love what I do, I’ll never have to work a day in my life.

Now, this is not to say that I take all the advice that I’ve consumed. Sometimes I try things and sometimes I let them go. Often, I will embrace an idea with gusto, submit my life to it fully, and then forget I decided to do it a week or so later.

I will likely never stop trying to improve; I will never stop reading and learning and making mistakes and starting over. I used to think that I would, one day, find the magical secret to endless bliss. I now know that’s silly (mostly) and am just happy to add something new to the ever-evolving project that is my life.

Something I’ve been coming across more and more lately in my nonending quest to improve myself is the idea that we are who we surround ourselves with. For example, if we surround ourselves with happy, positive people, it is more likely that we will be happier and more positive. If we surround ourselves with negative complainers, they are sure to suck all the joy from our souls.

But, wait, there’s more.

Studies have shown that the benefits of selectively choosing our group of friends are vast.

If we want to be more successful in our jobs, we should hang out with people who are successful in their jobs. If we want to get better at something, we should make sure there are people around us who excel at that thing. Why not learn some stuff while drinking beer on a Friday evening, right?

Why not, indeed.

Studies have shown that the benefits of selectively choosing our group of friends are vast. Do you have a problem with self-control? Strategically aligning yourself with those with high self-control could help compensate for your deficit.

Feeling blue? Do some social digging. You have a better chance of being happier even if your friends’ friends are happy.

It seems obvious that who we surround ourselves with is very important, and I don’t disagree. I definitely find myself in a better mood after hanging out with a happy person, and I’ve seen firsthand how someone’s good mood can deflate like a punctured balloon after spending five minutes with a constant complainer.

So, now that we know this, what do we do?

Easy: We evaluate our friends, we make tough choices, and we ditch the ones who don’t serve our greatest and highest good. Just because we’ve been friends with someone since high school doesn’t mean we need to keep them around. If we can’t learn from them, if they don't make us a better person, if their constant complaining and negativity bring us down every time we hang out with them, let them go. We don’t need that.

Rip off that useless Band-Aid, am I right?

But… what if that complaining friend is actually severely depressed, and you’re the only person she feels comfortable around? What if the only reason she got out of bed that day was that she was meeting you for breakfast?

Maybe that friend who has a dead-end job is hanging out with you because he’s inspired by your success. Maybe some of your healthy habits are helping a friend who is trying to develop some healthier habits of her own.

Maybe it’s not all about what we need all of the time. Maybe it’s sometimes about the people who need us. Maybe it shouldn’t always be about making ourselves better, but about helping others be the best they can be too. Even if it doesn’t always make us happy. Even if it’s hard.

Especially if it’s hard.

I had a friend who used to drive me absolutely crazy with her incessant complaints. No matter what we did, no matter how great the experience, there was always something wrong with it. She was always bringing me down. And I couldn’t handle it anymore.

So, I cut her loose. I made excuses about why I couldn’t hang out. I eventually stopped returning her phone calls and texts. I ghosted her before ghosting was actually a thing.

Now that I’ve dealt more with my own anxiety and depression, I look back on that time of my life and that choice that I made, and I feel terrible. I knew she was depressed. I knew she had very few friends. I knew she needed someone on her side. I knew those things and I chose to step away.

Maybe that friend who has a dead-end job is hanging out with you because he’s inspired by your success.

I chose it because it was easy. It was easier and less exhausting than having to deal with her negative emotions all the time. And I justified it by saying that it was what I needed to do for me to be my best self. It didn’t matter what she needed.

At a time when everyone is so hyper-focused on self-improvement (myself included), have we become so preoccupied with helping ourselves that we’re turning away from the people who need us the most, merely because they don’t provide us with any benefits?

Yes, it is obviously important to want to be happier and more successful, and we all deserve to be happier and more successful. But if we’re only surrounding ourselves with happy, positive, smart, thin, successful, beautiful people, where do the rest of us go? What about those of us who need a bit of a boost sometimes? What about those who need a boost from us?

I may never see my old friend again and, even if I did, she very likely would not want to see me. But I like to think that I’ve learned something from that experience. I like to think that, if it happened again, I would handle it differently. And I like to think that if I was going through a tough time and wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around, my friends would still stick by me and help me through it, rather than deciding that my issues didn’t contribute to them being their best selves.

Now I surround myself with all types of people. Some days they make me better, and some days I make them better. That’s what friendship is. It’s not always just about me and what I can get; it’s also about what I can give.

And my reward is having the best group of friends anyone could ask for.

Writer, runner, voracious reader, word nerd.

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