“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
“Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in 1883, in what wound up being her most popular verse. “For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth, / But has trouble enough of its own.”
The poem is lovely, to be sure. But in truth, unhappy people generally do not weep alone. Emotions of all kinds are highly contagious. Working in a negative environment, for example, can lower your happiness; living with a negative person can make you depressed.
Escaping unhappy people and their contagious emotions can be difficult, but more to the point, when we truly love others who are suffering, we don’t want to avoid their sadness, frustration, fear, or anxiety. We want to help—and that’s good. Just as we shouldn’t push away our own negative feelings if we want to grow and solve our problems, we can help those we love by accepting their emotions. And by following a few simple lessons, we can do so without sacrificing our own happiness in the process.
Emotional contagion isn’t all negative. In 2008, researchers used decades of data from a Massachusetts community to find that happiness is highly contagious. Specifically, living within a mile of a friend who becomes happy makes you 25 percent likelier to become happy too.
Emotions of all kinds have long been found to jump between people through a number of mechanisms. The most obvious is conversation, in which we transmit and take on the emotions of others through facial expressions, vocal tone, and posture. You probably have found that when you interact with certain people, you laugh more than normal; with others, you complain a lot.
We can also “catch” others’ emotions physiologically, at least in part. In one experiment, people who inhaled a disgusting smell and those who merely observed a video clip of a person with a disgusted expression had activation in the same parts of the brain. Similar results have been found in the experience of pain—your brain can sense it simply by seeing someone else who is hurting.
People who live together tend to have an especially strong influence on one another’s feelings. One study of college students matched up depressed and nondepressed roommates, and found that on average, the nondepressed roommates started showing signs of depression after living together for five weeks. One can only speculate on the effect if the cohabitation lasts years.
But you don’t have to live with someone for their bad mood to rub off on you. Many of us have been in a workplace shot through with toxic negativity, often because of one or a few people who derail the whole culture. If you have worked remotely this past year, have gotten happier, and are not looking forward to going back to the office, the reason may be that your quarantine has removed you from an unhappy officemate. Negative workplace emotional contagion can lead to misery and high turnover, and even be physically dangerous: In a 2019 study, researchers found that anger spreading around a workplace was correlated with more mistakes and accidents on the job.
Emotional contagion doesn’t even require direct in-person contact. In what may be the least surprising research finding of the decade, a 2014 experiment on social-media users showed that people transfer emotions to others virtually, often without even knowing who was on the receiving end of their negativity. This is an especially important finding given the broad reach of social media. One unhappy co-worker might bring a whole office down, but one highly negative person with a large social-media following—a politician, say—could spread their negative emotions to millions.
Some relationships do not require us to help bear others’ unhappiness, and avoiding a gloomy neighbor or co-worker can sometimes be justified. But in the cases in which love transcends the trouble—a partner, a parent, a child, an old friend—research yields lessons on how to help while maintaining your own well-being.
1. Put on your own oxygen mask first.
Work on your own happiness before trying to change others’. Forgoing your own joy for the sake of another person might seem like the more virtuous path, but that is a lose-lose strategy, kind of like suffocating without an oxygen mask while struggling to put on someone else’s. Remember, unhappiness is highly contagious. You can’t help others—and helping others can’t give you the high it otherwise would—when you are miserable.
Say you are living with an unhappy spouse or partner. Start each day by tending to your own happiness hygiene: exercise, meditate, call a friend. Give yourself an hour or two of space from the unhappy person, if you can, and focus on what you enjoy and are grateful for. This will give you the happiness reserves you need to lift up someone else.
2. Don’t take it personally.
Whether you’re at fault or not, thinking that someone else’s unhappiness is directed specifically toward you is only human. Personalization of negativity and conflict is one of the most powerful ways that unhappiness spreads. Psychologists studying this tendency find that taking negativity personally can lead to rumination, which damages your mental and physical health and ruins your relationships by encouraging you to avoid others and seek revenge.
If you care for an unhappy person, or even just spend time in the same room as them, remind yourself each day, “It’s not my fault, and I won’t take this personally.” View unhappiness in the same way you would a physical malady. The afflicted person might lash out and blame you because of sheer frustration, but you wouldn’t likely accept this blame unless you’re the one who injured them.
3. Use the element of surprise.
Helping another person be happy is not straightforward. Saying, “Cheer up!” for example—what psychologists call “reframing”—is usually counterproductive. Much better to get the unhappy person to engage in an activity that you know she likes. Research published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that actively engaging in an enjoyable activity improves mood more than doing nothing, suppressing the bad mood, or envisioning good times.
There’s a catch, though: The researchers also found that asking unhappy people to imagine happy activities (a step that is necessary for planning them in advance) made them less likely to participate in them. This is because the mood they are being encouraged to imagine seems difficult to attain, making the happy activity seem difficult as well. Even if you ordinarily enjoy riding your bike, when you are sad or depressed, it can seem like a chore. But if a friend shows up for a spontaneous ride, you might just say yes—and be more likely to enjoy it.
4. Prevent the spread.
So far, the advice here has been geared toward someone who wants to help an unhappy person. If you are the unhappy one, remember that people want to help. Doing so might make them happier. But more to the point, people who love you don’t want you to suffer. Isolating yourself or pretending to be happy just to make other people more comfortable won’t benefit anyone.
That said, you can use certain strategies to understand your negative thinking and actively communicate with others to help keep your relationships healthy. Perhaps this means telling your partner, “I want you to know that although I am going through a hard time right now, it’s not your fault.”
Or maybe it involves strategic avoidance during particular parts of the day. I knew a happily married couple where the wife, who struggled with periods of depression, felt especially wretched in the morning and did not want any company. They had a pact to stay on opposite sides of the house each day until lunch. The bottom line is that while you may not be able to will your feelings to improve, you can choose how you talk to and treat others, which will give your loved ones more energy to help you when you need it.
The point I am making here is far from new. More than 1,800 years ago, while emperor of Rome, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about emotional contagion during the dreaded Antonine Plague. The Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that the virus sometimes killed 2,000 people a day in the empire. Still, Marcus wrote, “the corruption of the mind is a pest far worse than any such miasma and vitiation of the air which we breathe around us. The latter is a pestilence for living creatures and affects their life, the former for human beings and affects their humanity.”
The unhappiness of those around us can indeed be contagious, but we don’t have to treat it like the coronavirus pandemic we have now long endured. Indeed, unhappiness is an inevitable part of life, and while never welcome, it is an opportunity to grow in love for one another.