Illustrative GIF of faces

Illustrations by Made by Emblem

Emotions are contagious. Here’s why that matters

Can you make others happier simply by being happy around them? Maybe.

As a mom of three, I’ve been through many a supermarket meltdown. And when I’ve been frustrated and close to tears in the cereal aisle, it’s often a moment of empathy from another shopper that has brought me back to feeling like I can go on. Sometimes all it takes is a sympathetic smile, or a stranger saying, “Been there,” to help my coping mechanisms kick in.

It’s incredible that a stranger can lift me up with such a small gesture, but this kind of occurrence is actually quite common. Think back to high school, when infectious laughter was practically an everyday occurrence. One kid would start giggling, then soon most of the class would join in, much to the teacher’s annoyance. As adults, these moments where emotions are so easily shared are less usual but still happen: you can’t help but smile, for instance, when you see loved ones reunited at airport arrivals. In a similar vein, we’ve all likely experienced having our moods brought down by being around someone who is broadcasting negativity or anger.

The phenomenon of emotional contagion has been researched extensively, especially in terms of how it affects productivity in the workplace – though the same principles apply whatever the situation. In The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior, Professor Sigil Barsade demonstrates that positive and negative emotions can be transferred from one person to another, or amongst a group. Emotions are contagious, good and bad, and we might be able to channel more positivity into the world if we keep that in mind.

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You smile, I smile

Though it would be nice if all it took to make the world a brighter place was a smile, emotional contagion is a little more complicated than that, says Myriam Mongrain, a professor at York University who specializes in depression, mood and personality. Although being around someone’s positive energy can lift us up, Mongrain notes that – as seen when we greet a smile with a smile – the effects probably don’t last any longer than the length of that interaction. “You’re sharing a moment of superficial happiness,” she says. “It might be cute and elicit a smile back, but there’s no real connection.”

What can make a lasting difference is when you have an authentic interaction with another person that makes them feel seen and heard. “It is about paying attention in those moments, tuning in to that person, looking at their body language, and trying to empathize with their situation,” says Mongrain.

For example, she adds, say you’re getting groceries and notice the cashier wince a little and tilt their neck. You might respond by saying, “That looks painful,” or that standing must be really tiring. “When you make a reflection like that, you can see the relief in their eyes. [You, as a stranger don’t] really matter to them, but somewhere, somebody has that empathic concern. They see you,” Mongrain says. “You don’t need to intervene any further, but you’ve shown empathy for what they are going through, and that’s uplifting.”

Feeling seen is something we all need, especially in a technology-heavy world where in-person interactions feel more and more rare. “When we have that kind of empathic interaction with someone else, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will return the gesture in kind to make an emotional ripple. But they will feel relieved for a few minutes, and that can lead to something else,” says Mongrain. “You don’t know what that might be, but it’s a better place.”

Contagious emotions can be healthy

These interactions do good things for our own bodies and minds as well as to those we connect with. In her book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, Canadian developmental psychologist Susan Pinker discusses how face-to-face contact lifts us up on a physiological level and can have lasting health effects. “Simply making eye contact with somebody, shaking hands, or giving them a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust and decreases cortisol levels, lowering your stress,” she says in an April 2017 TED Talk. “And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and kills pain.”

While of course you are in no way obligated to share your emotions with anyone, making an effort to do so could help you feel better about life in general, as well as help spread good feelings to others in your community. Sharing positivity through these kinds of micro-connections has been proven to lift up not only those you reach out to, but also to yourself – the person passing those good vibes on. Research has shown that engaging in positive social actions boosts us on a psychological level. We all have an innate need to feel capable, useful and connected to others, and these connections feed those needs. The world may seem like a negative place sometimes, but small acts of positivity can make an immediate impact.

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What have you got to lose?

Let’s say you decide to go out into the world and start creating these opportunities to spread positivity, and they fall flat. Maybe your well-meaning comment is greeted by silence or a scathing look. Don’t let it bring you down. Fact is, you never know what another person is going through. They could be in physical pain from a chronic illness, might have had a recent death in the family, or could just be having an incredibly bad day.

Getting ready to reflect your compassion

What’s key when we try to create these moments, whether with strangers or those we know, is that interactions come from a place of authenticity. You’re not responsible for making other people happy. (Side note: historically, a lot of expectation has been placed on women to do just that.) “Your job is to be authentic with yourself first, and when that happens, you can be in a genuinely happy place, or in a place where you are available to others,” says Mongrain. “If you’re faking your smile just to make others happy, then I don’t think you’re doing yourself or others a service.”

Faking happy is something that many of us do at work and home, and Mongrain says that can work against us in the end and just make us cranky as we succumb to pressure. Besides, you don’t need to be in a happy mood to lift others up, and simply being chirpy and smiling can come across as a little tone deaf when other people are struggling.

Knowing that negative emotions are contagious too, you may fear that your own struggles will be catching for others, but this isn’t necessarily true. Feeling blue doesn’t exclude you from having meaningful interactions. And that’s what it is all about: connecting with others whether you have a smile on your face or not.

“Positive ripple effects come from a place where you’ve made peace with yourself and are wanting to have an impact because that aligns with your values. That’s when you have the most to offer,” says Mongrain. “Just having that intention means that you’ll have your eyes open for opportunities during the day to show some genuine compassion and touch others in a way that makes their day go a little better.”

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