Beware of Contagious Emotions

Many years ago I worked with a woman who was the most pessimistic person I’ve ever met in my life. She found the negative in everything. I once countered something negative she said with a positive take on the subject we were talking about and she replied, “Well, if you want to be positive about it” and stormed back to her office. This was a trying person to work with and certainly had a negative impact on my own mood when she was around.

A few years before this I was on a bus in Toronto. As the bus pulled into the station at Yonge and Eglinton the bus driver began to sing “The driver of the bus says have a nice day, have a nice day, have a nice day” and on and on to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus”. I can’t speak for the other passengers, but my wife and I both commented to each other that with her song and pleasant attitude, the driver of the bus had made both of us smile and sent us on our way in better moods.

While these are both anecdotes of how the emotions of others affected my own emotions, there is scientific research supporting the idea that emotions are contagious. When you surround yourself with more “positive” people, you will more likely have a more positive feeling about your own life. If you surround yourself with more negative people, the more likely it will be that you have a negative take on your own circumstances.

Research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler has further shown that your emotions are affected not only by the people you hang out with – your family, friends, and work colleagues – but also the people you follow on social media. While it’s important to stay informed about world events, if everyone you follow only posts about how miserable they are, that’s going to negatively effect you.

I’m taking this to heart this year and unfollowing a lot of accounts that seem to share nothing except how miserable they are. On Twitter this means unfollowing the accounts entirely. On Facebook I can just “unfollow” but still remain “friends” with them, which can help to avoid awkward situations of “hey, I thought we were friends on Facebook.” I’m also becoming more and more aware of what I share on social networking sites and when communicating in-person, email, text, etc. with others.

In his TED talk on how emotions can be contagious, which you can watch below, Christakis also notes that not only are emotions contagious, but so are things like obesity. I worked hard to get fit last year. My chances of staying fit, including keeping the extra weight off, increase if I have other people in my life who have healthy eating and activity habits. I recognize that I need more of those people in my life, and I’ll be working on cultivating those connections this year.

Who do you surround yourself with, and who do they surround themselves with? All of these connections may be having positive or negative effects on your life. Who in your social network should you be spending more time with? Who should you stop following on Instagram, et al.? Keep in mind, following only those who share a false vision of a fantasy happy life aren’t helping you either because they create an unattainable bar for you to try to reach. Follow people who are “real”, but won’t drag you down because they refuse to ever see the glass half full. Also, think about what emotions and behaviours you are sharing with others. Your own negative or positive take on life, or your own health habits may make a difference in somebody else’s life.

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