The Superpower of Emotional Contagion

You have an incredible, awesome power to influence the moods of those around you.

If you wish, you can hurt, upset, anger, or scare others. You can also help others feel peaceful, happy, excited, humorous, loved, or any other emotion you can think of.

And I don’t just mean through your words.

In fact, your most powerful tool for influencing the emotions of those around you is not what you say – it’s what you feel.

That’s because emotional contagion is a real phenomenon. (Yes, I’ve read the scientific book by that same title. Feel free to google around for scholarly articles with the same key-phrase.)

Emotions are incredibly contagious.

In the same way that someone yawning next to you might cause you to yawn – in fact, even thinking about the idea of yawning might cause you to want to yawn right now – the emotions others feel have the habit of creeping up on us as well.

When someone is angry at you, tense, aggressive, and flips you off, in a second you feel your own blood boil as you “catch” their tension.

When you’re around friends who are relaxed, and in a humorous mood – sharing a knowing smile that holds in laughter – you may find yourself unconsciously smiling as well.

By and large, our brains are incredibly adept at noticing the emotions in others faces, or deciphering what others would be feeling given their situation, and our mirror neurons replicate those emotions in ourselves.

Emotional contagion, and mirror neurons, are at the core of just about every interpersonal interaction and phenomenon. People like watching sports because they feel the same thrill that the winning players do; people like watching romance movies to feel the same rush as the principle characters. And every single interpersonal interaction, every conversation, is – at its core – an exchange of emotions.

You see, you can affect others’ emotions, but they can also affect yours. True, some people are less affected by others, while some are more affected. Similarly, some people’s emotions are more contagious, while some people’s are less. (Perhaps you know someone whose tension and irritability can darken a whole room, but whose smile and ease can immediately brighten it back up?)

But the thing is, whether we recognize it or not, we are all, to at least some degree, directly influencing the emotions of others around us, just by osmosis – just by feeling what we’re feeling. We have an incredible power to affect the moods of others. It’s almost like a genuine superpower.

Except, as the saying goes (and is perhaps a little overused, but it fits perfectly here): With great power comes great responsibility.

*Uncle Ben, Spiderman

Once you recognize that you – yes, YOU have great power of the emotions of those around you, you start to think about the kinds of emotions you want to share.

It’s worth asking yourself:

How do you want people to feel?

Really, if you could make people feel however you wanted, how would you want them to feel?

Do you want people around you to feel scared, angry, tense? Because you really do have the power to make that happen if you wish.

But I suspect you don’t truly want that. I suspect you may want the people around you to feel peaceful, loved, humorous, excited, happy. And you have the power to make this happen as well.

Of course, in order to do so, you have to cultivate those emotions in yourself. This can take a little work, especially with the outside world flinging so many contagious emotions at you. But with a little help from physiological emotion hacking, a little mindfulness, and a little directed positive focus, I suspect you could – if you really wanted to – nudge your mood at least somewhat in a positive direction. If not for yourself, then for others, to help those around you feel better.

Because you really do have the power to brighten someone’s day.

You have the power to help someone feel peaceful when they’re scared, or loved when they’re lonely.

You have the power to subtly lift the mood of a room, if you really want to, when people seem upset and angry.

You have the power to help others smile, laugh, and feel good about being alive.

(Along the way, you may find that a simple genuine smile goes a very, very long way.)

Now does it work like magic? Can you just pick however you want to feel, immediately feel that way, and immediately make everyone else feel that way, all the time, starting now? Maybe not quite.

But with a little self awareness, practice, patience, and persistence (definitely patience and persistence, sometimes it takes a while to calm someone down who’s in a bad mood), you may find that you surprise yourself with your ability to affect others for the better.

And damned if there isn’t a cooler superpower than that.

Published by Dolan

Relentless self-optimizer, biohacker, traveler, reader.

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