The Power of Emotional Contagion: 5 Ways to Get Your Environment to Work for You

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Emotions are contagious.

Scientists are still debating the how and why, but we all know this intuitively. When we talk to someone sad, we tend to get depressed ourselves. When we talk to someone filled with joy, we just can’t help but feel a little better.

A long-term network study of 4,739 connected individuals put numbers to our intuition:

You are 15% more likely to be happy if a directly connected friend is happy, 9.8% more likely if a friend of a friend is happy, and 5.6% if a friend of a friend of a friend is happy.1

That's right – a friend of a friend of a friend, someone you don't even know, has more influence on your happiness than the size of your TV.

This was shown to be true after controlling for all sorts of confounding factors. Your friend of a friend of a friend actually influences your friend's friend, who in turn influences your friend, who finally influences you.

So how can we take advantage of the biological fact that much of our mood comes from our environment?

You should spend less time with negative people. But you've probably already had someone tell you that already. Instead, I suggest that you spend more time with happy people.

Happiness is more contagious than unhappiness. 

Each additional happy friend that you have increases the chance of you being happy by 9%. Each additional unhappy friend increases the chance of you being unhappy by 7%.1

One happy friend more than cancels out an unhappy one. The good news for happy people is that we are more likely to become friends with those who are similar to us. Happy people tend to marry each other, the same way that unhappy people tend to marry each other. It's a self-reinforcing cycle, good for those born lucky. What can the rest of us do?

Two things: make an effort to befriend the happier people in our lives, and make an effort to find happy people whom we can befriend.

Make an effort to befriend the happier people in our lives.

People full of vivacious joy use to repel me. I couldn't relate to them, and their unbounded, overly optimistic sense of reality disturbed me. But after making friends with one of these people (through forced, repeated interaction), I couldn't be happier.

She puts a smile on my face every time I see her, because regardless of how tired or stressful her day, she radiates joy and optimism. No, I don't have a romantic interest in her.

Think of one person in your life who is full of positivity, but whom you aren't close with. Make the effort to change that – it will be worth it.

If you want a social circle full of vibrancy, however, you'll also need to follow the second step:

Find happy people whom you can befriend.

Luckily, the best way to find and make friends with happy people is to do the things they do. The things they do are often great happiness boosters in and of themselves. Here are a few options:

  • Yoga, which improves mood much more than other types of exercise that would burn the same number of calories.2
  • Meditation, which is one of the most effective ways to permanently boost mood, aside from getting kissed by Megan Fox.
  • Going to church. I'm not religious, but I can tell that if I was, I would love the sense of community and higher purpose. Frequent churchgoers are, on average, 10% happier than their less religious peers.3
  • Getting a pet and walking it around the park. There is a significant positive correlation between the number of interactions with pets and mood.4
  • Joining a sports team, the local pick-up game, the running club, or going to the gym. People who exercise are happier than those who don't.5

Picking just one of these activities can have a doubly tremendous impact on your mood: once because of the activity itself, and a second time because you'll be meeting and getting closer to happy people.

Did I miss a good hang-out place? Please share below. I'm always looking for more opportunities to meet happy people!

See more things that make you happy in this list of 54 Things that Bring Happiness


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1 thought on “The Power of Emotional Contagion: 5 Ways to Get Your Environment to Work for You”

  1. You know, as a man society as a whole had dissuaded me from acts of creation, like music and dance groups. But you are absolutely right – some of the happiest people I know, I’ve met while ballroom dancing. Thank you for the suggestion!


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