The Psychological Case for Hanging out with Happy People

On the startling degree that our moods are influenced by others.

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It’s a little-known but fascinating fact that our actions are contagious. Yawns are the most prevalent example of this, which I’m sure most people have experienced at one point or another — you see someone yawn and find yourself yawning, too.

It goes beyond that: two people in a conversation will begin to sync up blinking. A group of people in a meeting will begin to breathe at the same rate. Two folks seated in rocking chairs beside one another will slowly but surely begin to rock at the same time. We’re social animals, at the end of the day, and it shows in our most basal actions — we like to move together.

It’s a more well-known fact that most of our communication is non-verbal. The commonly quoted statistic is 93% of the way we understand each other is through body language, tone, and facial expression, rather than the literal words we use.

When we communicate with one another, the vast majority of what we say goes unspoken, picked up through cues we don’t fully understand.

What shouldn’t be surprising to most people, then, is that not only movements but emotions, too, are contagious. Like a particularly virulent bout of the flu, people pick up moods from one another, passing them along our networks. We see a smile, a frown, and we reflect it without even knowing it.

Even if what we’re saying is totally at odds with what we’re feeling, people aren’t fooled: our emotions emanate from us. Our every mood is broadcast out to the people we interact with at regular, frequent intervals.

These tiny, fleeting emotions that we pick up and distribute without even knowing it are called microexpressions. And if you’re an empathetic person, used to interpreting cues other than the words people use to infer their true meaning, it’s very likely that you spot these, internalize them, and mimic them just as you would any other movement like blinking or breathing.

Your internal mood is controlled by your external actions.

Like most folks, when I’m in a bad mood, I’ve tried forcing myself to smile to lift myself out of it. The theory goes that although normally people smile because they’re in a good mood, it can go the other way: the physical act of smiling triggers a good mood, too.

Put this fact into context with the new research showing we catch microexpressions from others. When we interact with folks, we’re noticing on a subliminal level what they’re feeling, and we reflect it ourselves. This has tangible effects on our own moods.

If the person you’re speaking with is happy, you’ll find yourself happier. If they’re sad, or angry, or exuberant, you will pick that up, whether you realize it or not, and you’ll find yourself feeling the same way. In this way, our days are made up of these interactions we have with each other, adding up to affect our mood and feelings more than we might know.

We need to remember that we’re a social species.

The takeaway? You’re more insightful than you give yourself credit for. If you find that you’re feeling down after speaking to people, look back on your conversations. Pay less attention to the words and more attention to the feelings. Is it possible there was more going on than you originally thought?

Even if they seemed happy, if you’re feeling drained or sad after speaking with them, it’s possible they’re struggling and would benefit from you reaching out to them.

Conversely, seeking out genuinely joyful people will lift you up, which in turn will lift up the people around you. Remember that the way you feel will be affecting the people you interact with on a daily basis, and that they’ll be affecting you, too.

We’re connected to one another whether we like it or not. We’re geared to detect and reflect the actions and moods of others, making us a sum of the people around us. You can resent that fact, or you can acknowledge it and use it to make yourself and others around you feel better.

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Written by

MSc by Research. Psychology nerd. She/her. zuliewrites.com

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