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Social Contagion: The Best Ways To Avoid The Bad Moods of Others

I was walking through my workplace today in a good mood. But then I passed a coworker who was clearly not. She explained that her day was spiraling downhill, and with every passing moment I listened to her, my own mood began to follow suit, sinking like a stone. It made me wonder whether moods, like yawns, are contagious.

Surely someone had pondered this before me. Perhaps even studied it. Turns out, they have — and it’s true. Emotions follow other emotions.

Scientists at Oxford University found that moods are contagious, and bad moods are even more infectious. Their study, done in conjunction with Birmingham University, found that teens are extremely susceptible to this type of emotional reactivity.

This research followed 79 teenagers before the pandemic. They noticed that teenagers caught moods from each other, but the data went both ways. Adolescents in a good mood could lift the spirits of those in a bad mood.

Emotional contagion, as it’s called, has been the subject of research many times. One group looking at the issue stated that social interactions trigger emotional contagion and the synching of behaviors. Simply put, we tend to fall in line with the pervasive mood of the people around us.

That may explain picking up the ‘vibe’ in a room. For example, imagine joining a party when everyone is having a good time. It’s infectious! But just how far does this extend? How about hearing a sad song, and finding yourself re-experiencing a bad breakup or a regrettable romance? Listening to a sappy, sad song when you’re having a great day can quickly change your mood.

This mood sharing experience can be passed along if you are listening to a friend’s woes and find yourself distressed too. Some researchers have even likened it to the spread of the cold or the flu. Perhaps we, maybe even subconsciously, mimic the emotions and expressions of others.

Understanding that emotional contagion is a very real phenomenon can greatly help control your feelings. It may be good when it uplifts us, but not so cool when it leaves us down in the dumps. Being mindful that listening to someone’s troubles could temporarily impact our own well-being is key in avoiding the slide. It is possible to observe them without getting the blues yourself if you maintain awareness.

The best way to combat drops in mood is by keeping your energy high. You should work toward creating positive spaces that help you shift the mood when you feel you are sliding into a negative mindset.

A happy place at work can be as simple as a photo, meme, or memento that never fails to perk you up. Using your earbuds to listen to music can also alter your emotional pitch. Plants, if they are allowed, are known to increase a sense of calm and well-being.

Shifting your body language while listening to a friend who might be complaining or voicing negative feelings has also shown to make a difference. How you hold yourself impacts the way you feel. Staying erect and open, avoiding a tendency to slump or slouch makes you feel better. Who doesn’t feel better when you have a little bounce in your step? This is something you can force yourself to do even if you don’t feel light and springy; and it will help reset your sliding emotions.

Lastly, try not to be ‘that’ guy or gal: the negative Nelly who is constantly bringing everyone down. We all have bad days, but you’re more likely to feel better if you can pick yourself up.

What do you think?

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