Laughter is Contagious, But So is Crying: How to Navigate Emotional Contagion

Do you ever find it difficult to be in a good mood when your partner or family member is unhappy? Or do you have that friend whose joy and happiness always seem to rub off on you?
How to navigate emotional contagion cover

Do you ever find it difficult to be in a good mood when your partner or family member is unhappy? Or do you have that friend whose joy and happiness always seem to rub off on you?

It turns out misery really does love company – but so does happiness.

The English language is full of phrases that allude to the contagion of emotions. One popular phrase is “laughter is contagious,” and some people claim to be a “sympathetic crier,” meaning if they see someone crying, they’ll also start tearing up. Even during a film, it is difficult not to sympathize with characters who are experiencing heartbreak or sadness and mimic their emotions.

Researchers have spent centuries studying human’s tendency to unconsciously mimic the emotions of others and feel the same feelings simply by being exposed to them. This is called emotional contagion. Evidence shows that emotions jump between people through various mechanisms. One being conversation, in which we transmit emotions through facial, vocal, and postural expressions. This is why with some people, you find yourself laughing a lot, while with others, you end up feeling negative.

People who live together or spend a considerable amount of time together have an especially strong influence on one another’s emotions. This is because emotional contagion threads through social networks.

A recent study from Harvard University argues that when a person experiences happiness, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of also feeling happy. Another study found that when non-depressed and depressed roommates lived together, the non-depressed roommates ended up showing signs of depression after just 5 weeks of living together.

The Good

Emotional contagion has its benefits. As it turns out, happiness is highly contagious. In fact, researchers conducted a 20-year study and found that people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation. This means that one person’s happiness can transmit to the friends of one’s friends’ friends.

Happiness is a fundamental component of the human experience. The World Health Organization has emphasized happiness as a key ingredient to good health. The ways in which happiness spreads through social networks tell us a lot more about happiness than we think. Nicholas Christakis, medical sociology professor and researcher, says instead of asking “how can we get happier,” we need to ask, “how can we increase happiness all around us?”

The Bad

Emotional contagion doesn’t always require direct in-person contact. You don’t even need to know someone personally in order to feel their emotions and take them on as your own. Emotions can also be transferred virtually via social media, film, or music. A 2014 study on Facebook users proved that emotions expressed by others influence our own emotions, showing that in-person interaction and verbal cues aren’t actually necessary for emotional contagion.

This finding is crucial when we consider the uprising of influencer culture. One single person with a large following has the power to negatively or positively influence millions of people just by posting on social media.

How to maintain your own well-being

Being around unhappy people and their emotions can be difficult. Whether it’s a roommate, partner, or a politician’s Twitter feed – other people’s unhappiness and negativity can indeed be contagious. Especially when loved ones experience sadness or hardship, the last thing we want to do is avoid their unhappiness. Luckily, there are steps that can be taken to help your loved ones while also protecting your own well-being.

  1. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take space to tend to your own happiness first. Plenty of research shows that maintaining your own ‘happiness hygiene’ by simply exercising, deep breathing, calling a friend, or even journaling for a few moments can make a big difference in your own emotional capacity to help others.
  2. It isn’t about you. Don’t personalize someone else’s negative feelings. In fact, psychologists argue that taking a partner or friend’s negativity personally causes rumination and residual hurt and negative feelings towards them.
  3. Boundaries. Healthy boundaries are a necessary component of self-care. When we don’t have boundaries in relationships, we feel intruded upon, taken for granted, resentment, hurt, anger and burnout. When it comes to our friend’s and partner’s unhappiness, setting boundaries can look like separating your thoughts, needs, feelings and desires from others or having your own personal space.

Society needs to understand that negativity and unhappiness are an inevitable part of the human experience. While although other people’s unhappiness can indeed be contagious, there is no need to avoid those negative emotions. Instead, researchers and psychologists alike argue that we need to focus on how we can spread happiness and joy all around us.


Like what we have to say? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you’ll never miss a post.