Most of us, at some point in the past few years, have found ourselves a little bit more attuned to the sound of a cough. Our alarm bells go off, and this can be summed up into one word – “cough, cough” coronavirus. Yes, I know, not another story about corona and your mental health! Well luckily, that’s not what this story is about. But it is about something else that turns out to be contagious: moods.
Yes, just like catching corona (or any other sickness you may be trying to avoid) you can also catch someone else’s mood – and it’s backed by science. Researchers found that through a process called ‘social contagion’ moods can spread from one person to the next in various ways.
No doubt most of us have experienced how others’ bad moods can affect us negatively. We easily feel down, or sad, or angry when others around us emote those same feelings – especially those we are closer to. But what about positive emotions, can they be contagious? And if so, to what degree?
Research by Nicholas Christakis from Harvard University suggests that happiness, like the flu, can spread from person to person. When people close to us, in terms of relationships, or even physical proximity become happier, we do too. For example, when a person who lives within a mile of a good friend becomes happier, the probability that this person’s good friend will also become happier increases by 15%. An even more striking finding in this study suggests that the effect can go beyond direct links and reach a third degree of separation: When a friend of a friend becomes happier, we become happier, even when we don’t know that third person directly!
Perhaps this is just another small reminder of why your mom was right when she told you to ”choose your friends carefully!”
Interestingly, the concept of ‘social contagion” also explains why the old notion of trying to become happier by comparing yourself to the less fortunate (i.e. those who have more troubled relationships, less money, worse health, etc…) does not often work. You see, if you compare yourself to those who suffer more, and thus have more negative moods, you expose yourself to the negative moods as well. And, if you accept that moods are contagious, then comparing yourself to the less fortunate can actually affect you more negatively than uplift your spirits.
Moods thus are not just contagious, they’re very contagious. In a world where depression is the leading cause of disability, and it’s estimated that 5% of adults globally suffer from it (according to 2021 World Health Organization data), a little boost in happiness can go a lot further than you think.
The key takeaway is that if you work on your own happiness while also surrounding yourself with happier people, it’s not only good for your well-being, it will make others around you happier, and those who are close to them happier as well!
This is the powerful ripple effect of happiness.
I hope you choose it when you can!
Dr. Tal Leead has more than 25 years of clinical experience and runs her own private practice in California primarily focused on positive psychology. Her first best-selling book Happier Being: Your Path to Optimizing Habits, Health & Happiness has already sold thousands of copies and received praise from world-renowned meditation expert Sharon Salzberg, amongst many others. She has also been published in magazines such as Thrive Global and Psychreg.