By Dr. Mercola
The idea that emotions can travel between populations similar to outbreaks of disease is not new. More than 200 years ago, an epidemic of suicides occurred in Europe. Most of the victims had read a book titled "The Sorrows of Young Werther," by Johann von Goethe, in which the hero commits suicide. To stop the wave of suicides, the book was banned in several areas, according to a study published in The Journal of Memetics, which continued:1
"During the two hundred years that have followed the publication and subsequent censorship of Goethe's novel, social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious."
Fortunately, it's not only negative emotions that seem to spread like wildfire; positive emotions are contagious too. It's an important point to remember when choosing with whom to associate and spend your time, as surrounding yourself with happy people may be key to feeling happy yourself.
Teenagers 'Catch' Each Other's Moods
In a study of more than 2,000 junior high and high school students, researchers used data from depression screenings and surveys to determine social and mood changes over time. As you might suspect, students with friends suffering from bad moods were more likely to report bad moods themselves, while the opposite also held true — students with happier friends were happier themselves.2 Various components of mood, including appetite, tiredness and sleep were assessed, with the researchers concluding:3
"We find that having more friends with worse mood is associated with a higher probability of an adolescent worsening in mood and a lower probability of improving, and vice versa for friends with better mood, for the overwhelming majority of mood components."
This means that not only can your happy mood benefit that of your friends, but taking steps to boost your mood if you're feeling down may trickle down to make your friends feel more chipper too. The contagious effect was not strong enough in the negative direction to increase depression incidence, however, which may explain why past research has found the social contagion theory does not appear to extend to depression. It did increase the risk of certain depressive symptoms, though.
That being said, the study has implications for teens and adults suffering from what's known as subthreshold depression, which is estimated to affect 300 million people worldwide.4 This describes the many cases when a person suffers from discontent and other depressive symptoms but at a level that's under what's typically diagnosed as clinical depression. The study found that symptoms of subthreshold depression may spread socially among teens:5
"Subthreshold levels of depressive symptoms in adolescents is an issue of great current concern as they have been found to be very common, to cause a reduced quality of life and to lead to greater risk of depression later on in life than having no symptoms at all.
Understanding that these components of mood can spread socially suggests that while the primary target of social interventions should be to increase friendship because of its benefits in reducing of the risk of depression, a secondary aim could be to reduce spreading of negative mood."
Facebook Lurking Linked to Depression
It's becoming increasingly clear that emotions do, in fact, spread, both in person and online. With an estimated 1.65 billion people using the social media site Facebook actively every month, spending an average of 50 minutes on the site daily,6 this has major implications for public health. In this case, unlike the contagiousness of positive moods in person, lurking on Facebook and seeing other people's perfect, happy posts can in turn make you feel depressed.7
The problem may be social comparison, in that comparing your life to other's triggers a feeling that you need to "keep up with the Joneses" instead of being happy with what you have. University of Houston researchers found, however, that all types of social comparisons — whether upward, downward or even neutral — were linked to a greater likelihood of depressive symptoms.8
A study of more than 1,000 people in Denmark further revealed causal evidence that "Facebook affects our well-being negatively."9 Facebook users who took a one-week break from the site reported significantly higher levels of life satisfaction and a significantly improved emotional life. Such gains were greatest among heavy Facebook users, those who used the site passively (lurking but not necessarily interacting with others) and those who tended to envy others on Facebook.
Another study, conducted by researchers from Lancaster University in England, examined studies from 14 countries to explore the connection between Facebook usage and depression. It was found that negative comparisons with others on Facebook were predictive of depression because they increased rumination.10
Likewise, frequent posting on Facebook was also associated with increased rumination and depression. Women were more likely to become depressed than men due to Facebook usage, as were people with neurotic personalities. In addition, Facebook users were more at risk of depression if they displayed the following:11
- Felt envy after observing others
- Accepted former partners as Facebook friends
- Made negative social comparisons
- Made frequent negative status updates
Social Happiness Can Spread by Three Degrees
In 2008, researchers again found that a friend living within a mile of a happy friend has a 25 percent greater chance of becoming happy over the 20-year study period.12 The neighbor of a happy person increases their likelihood of happiness by an impressive 34 percent, even more than the spouse of a happy person (who is 8 percent more likely to be happy).
Equally impressive, however, was the finding that happiness can spread through social networks by up to three degrees, meaning friends of friends of friends can all benefit from one person's rosy disposition. According to the researchers:13
"People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals …
People's happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon."
The same holds true among groups, such as athletes on a sports team or a group of colleagues at the office. It's been shown, for instance, that the group leader's mood influences the mood of the rest of the group. If their mood was positive, the group enjoyed more coordination and expended less effort in one study, compared to groups with negative leaders.14 Even witnessing unpleasant interactions between other co-workers is enough to leave employees feeling emotionally drained.15
You Can Also 'Catch' Others' Stress
Research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology revealed that simply observing someone else in a stressful situation typically elicits an empathic stress response in the observer.16 When observing stressed participants (who were asked to solve difficult arithmetic tasks and engage in interviews) through a one-way mirror, 30 percent of the observers experienced a stress response in the form of an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.
When the observer had a romantic relationship with the stressed participant, the emphatic stress response was even stronger, affecting 40 percent. However, even when observing a stressed stranger, 10 percent of observers felt similarly stressed. The stress response was transmitted not only when observers watched the event live, through a one-way mirror, but also via video transmission.
About 24 percent of the observers had increased cortisol levels when they watched a televised version of the stressful event. It's also been shown that viewing a video with a speaker under high stress or recovering from a stressful situation led to changes in viewers' cardiac activity.
"These data add to the existing literature of emotional contagion research, and bolster the idea that stress can be contagious on a psychophysiological level," the researchers noted, adding, "These particular findings are of importance as they demonstrate that individuals can detect stress in others, even in the absence of overt context-dependent stress cues (i.e., stressful topic of speech), and have cardiac responses that are related to those of the speaker."17
It's interesting to note, too, that catching others' emotions may be a very natural trait, but one that may be missing in those at risk of psychological problems, particularly psychopathy. In one study, for instance, boys at risk for psychopathy showed reduced laughter contagion.18
Surround Yourself With Happy People
The take-home message here is that the more you can surround yourself with positive, happy people, the better your emotional health is likely to be. This is true for children and teens, too, so be aware of who your child's friends are. Connecting with positive people may not be as difficult as it may seem, particularly if you involve yourself in activities that you enjoy and/or benefit your community.
Remember that everyone starts out as a stranger, but you can add more meaningful relationships to your life just by being open to communicating with those around you — even those you don't yet know. Opening up a conversation about a neutral third subject — your dog, the commute or even the weather — can be the conduit you need to eventually get into more meaningful conversation.
You could also consider volunteering or engaging in an activity that uses your time or skills to help others. Giving to others is linked to happiness, and taking part in being generous in a group setting may only magnify this effect while giving you the opportunity to bask in others' happiness and form new relationships. Still, you needn't rely solely on others to boost your mood and enjoy happiness.
Perhaps you'd prefer to be the happy person that others gravitate to. In that case, in the video above London School of Economics (LSE) economist Lord Richard Layard, founder of Action for Happiness, a movement of people committed to building a happier and more caring society, suggests not tying your inner purpose to becoming richer and instead focus on achieving happiness and well-being.
Action for Happiness, whose members pledge to try to create more happiness in the world around them, has compiled 10 keys to happier living, which, based on the latest research, tend to make life happier and more fulfilling. They spell out "GREAT DREAM" and make a great place to start your journey to happiness:19
Giving: Do things for others
Relating: Connect with people
Exercising: Take care of your body
Awareness: Live life mindfully
Trying Out: Keep learning new things
Direction: Have goals to look forward to
Resilience: Find ways to bounce back
Trying Out: Keep learning new things
Acceptance: Be comfortable with who you are
Meaning: Be part of something bigger