We know to stay away from people when they're sick with the flu—but what about when our friends, family, and colleagues are stressed or angry?
The moods of others may be just as contagious as their germs, suggests Monmouth University professor Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr., in an article written for Scientific American.
Psychologists dubbed this as "emotional contagion," a phenomenon that Lewandowski describes in three steps:
1. Our nonconscious mind mimics facial expressions through our Mirror Neuron System. This system records expressions and body movements of another person's smile or scowl. In response, it signals activity to your facial muscles, causing a mirrored expression on your face.
2. The expression generated by nonconscious mimicry spirals into a corresponding emotion. When you smile, you generate happiness within yourself. When you scowl, you trigger anger.
3. You and the other person will share these experiences until you reach a shared emotional state.
It's wonderful to catch another person's good mood, but should you run away when a friend is upset? How do we shield ourselves from others' negativity?
Let's say your day is humming right along, and you're in the flow, perhaps celebrating a personal victory or simply in a state of silent appreciation for the blessings in your life. When all of a sudden—wham! You cross paths with someone who is down on their luck, in a foul mood, or is otherwise irritable.
In the presence of this person you no longer feel quite so happy. You start to catch their emotions, feeling resentful, annoyed, and or perhaps downright depressed.
In these situations you're faced with a choice: You can either invite the other person to synchronize with your emotional state, or you'll unwittingly synchronize with theirs.
The next time you find yourself dealing with someone who's angry, depressed, or otherwise oozing negativity, try this technique from Marci Shimoff's Happy for No Reason course:
1. Keep your emotional balance by tuning in to your body. Deepen your breathing, and notice any sensations that arise within you. This will keep you from a knee-jerk reaction.
2. Point out the positive—gently and without judgment. Most people who are feeling cranky and upset aren't deliberately trying to bring others down. Look beyond their behavior and you'll see that they're just trying to find a way to feel some relief.
3. Offer a lighthearted comment—or better yet, a bit of praise or appreciation—and they may see the situation from a new perspective. When you can't think of anything positive to say, know that simply staying neutral in the face of their negativity is a gift in itself.