Research: Our Moods are Contagious

Bring up the word “contagion,” and our minds think of frightening medical thrillers about unleashed, biological nightmares that become public enemy number one (cue Robin Cook).

But these days, sociologists and mental health professionals have come up with a new phrase to describe how we are affected by the moods of those we come into contact with on a daily basis: “social contagion.”

Ever notice that after spending time with someone from another part of the country, you start to “mimic” not only their colloquialisms but their regional accents as well?

Researchers have discovered that not only do we “take on” speech patterns of others, but we pick up on their emotional state as well.

The fascinating thing about all of this is that we are largely unaware that it’s even happening until after the fact.

For example, have you ever been around someone who leaves you feeling down once your conversation is over? Or conversely, maybe you’ve noticed a boost in your mental attitude after spending time with someone who has a cheerful, positive outlook?

Scientists have discovered that our primitive brains pick up on ‘micro-expressions’ — slight, facial movements that reveal our emotional state in nano-second bursts that are very nearly undetectable.

Except they ARE detectable by our subconscious minds; moreover, these exceptionally nuances speak volumes — possibly even more than actual verbiage.

Their impact can be quite profound; I remember being in a meeting a number of years ago. One member of the team in particular kept interjecting her thoughts and opinions during most of the presentation. After the meeting, which seemed interminably long after all of her distractive interruptions, a colleague leaned over to me and said, “that woman is an energy vampire.”

She was right; she seemed to suck all of the positive energy right out of the entire room.

Social Media and Social Contagion

Something that probably will come as no shock is that we also pick up on the “tone” of our newsfeeds on social media. If the majority of what we read is negative, we are much more likely to post in kind. Negative tweets are a perfect example of this — ranting tends to invite more ranting.

But the good news is that if we become more aware of this phenomenon, we can stem the tide by through “positive, purposeful posting.” Maybe if we keep this simple alliteration in mind, we can not only keep our own moods more stable, we can also subconsciously inspire others to do the same.

Comedian Pat Oswalt caused just such a turnaround after being criticized by someone on twitter. For more on that story, click here.

The Bottom Line: It Pays to be Mindful

Although at first glance it may seem like we are completely at the mercy of the mental state of those we interact with, consider this: by gauging how we feel after personal encounters, we can thoughtfully decide to spend more time with those who increase our mental energy, rather than with those who sap it.

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