It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch.
We’ve all experienced the effects of this firsthand.
One frustrated coworker sours the mood of the entire team.
A grumpy family member saps the positive energy from a vacation.
An angry driver cuts you off in traffic, instantly putting a damper on your morning.
Emotional contagion is the appropriately sinister term for this psychological phenomenon. It describes the fact that moods transfer between people over a short period of time. (Many studies have displayed this in different settings.)
Emotional contagion in action.
This can be wonderful when you surround yourself with happy people. As one study in the British Medical Journal illustrates, when your friends are happy, you’re more likely to be happy too.
On the flip side of things, Emotional Contagion is a big reason why it’s so hard to deal with negativity in life. People who express negativity can be like emotional black holes. Everyone who comes in contact with them suffers the consequences.
In order to minimize the impact of negativity in your life, consider two scenarios:
- Avoiding “infection” when others bring negativity to you.
- Not spreading negativity to others when you find yourself in a negative mood.
Navigating these scenarios well depends on your ability to be mindful of your thoughts and actions.
Below are six strategies I’ve implemented with success in my own life.
Dealing With Negativity in Others
You’ll find angry, grumpy, and frustrated people wherever you go. It could be co-workers, your mom, or a complete stranger.
No matter how these folks treat you, remember that you’re always in control of how you react.
If your goal is to spread peace and positivity in the world, make the following choices when negativity crosses your path.
1. Don’t Take it Personally
You never know what someone else is going through in life.
Give others the benefit of the doubt by “assuming the worst”. Maybe their dog is sick, or their girlfriend broke up with them, or a family member is in the hospital.
Their negative actions probably have nothing to do with you, they’re just expressing their negativity, and you happen to be there to receive it. Psychologist David J. Pollay describes this well with his “Law of the Garbage Truck”, which he learned from an NYC cab driver.
“Many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they look for a place to dump it. And if you let them, they’ll dump it on you. So when someone wants to dump on you, don’t take it personally. Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Believe me. You’ll be happier.”
2. Stay Patient to Create Space
Negativity short-circuits your system and provokes thoughtless reactions.
Don’t give in to impatient urges. Instead, breath deeply, and create space to act with intention.
For example, when responding to an angry email or note, don’t respond right away. Give it some time to digest by waiting until the following day. Approaching the email with a clear-headed perspective will prevent a regrettably reactionary response.
3. Be Peaceful and Smile
Emotional Contagion applies to both positive and negative emotions. Don’t forget that your interactions are an opportunity to bring others up.
It doesn’t need to be an extravagant effort to make them happy. Simply being peace by sharing your smile is enough. (This is one reason why self-care is so important. It helps you be your best self each day, so you can bring positivity to others.)
Dealing With Your own Negativity
Even the most positive people wake up on the wrong side of the bed from time to time.
In these situations, self-awareness is the first step to prevent spreading negativity to others. Without awareness of your negative mental state, you’ll be trapped as a victim of its reactive ways.
But the instant you become aware that you’re experiencing negative emotions, you’re back in control. Awareness gives you the opportunity to act with intention.
When you feel anger or frustration flare up, take a few steps to proceed mindfully.
1. Remember, you are not Your Emotions
Instead of getting swept away by negative emotions, observe your emotional experience with curiosity.
Take a moment to observe the physical sensations of these emotions in your body.
- Where do you feel the sensations most strongly?
- What are the qualities of these sensations? (e.g. Tension, movement, heat, …)
- How are the sensations changing over time?
- Notice when new sensations come into focus, and existing sensations go away.
Focusing on the physical sensations of your negative emotions helps you observe them objectively.
After all, you are not your anger or frustration. You just happen to be experiencing those emotions.
2. Accept That These Emotions are Temporary
This is true of all emotions, thoughts, and feelings.
You only need to observe your emotions or thoughts for a short period of time to understand their temporary nature.
Like clouds (or cats) passing over the blue sky, this too shall pass.
Thoughts and emotions come and go…
3. Choose to Smile
By smiling, you remind yourself that you have the power to control your reactions. When you live with greater self-awareness, it’s clear that how you act is always a choice.
Even if smiling feels inauthentic, give it a try. A study published in Psychological Science showed that the physical act of smiling during stressful activities led to reduced heart rates in participants.
“Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
Proceed With Openness and Intention
Negativity is bound to enter your life time and time again. Sometimes other people will thrust negativity upon you. Other times, you’ll find negativity welling within you.
However you encounter negativity, choose to navigate these situations mindfully.
Accept the presence of negativity with nonjudgmental awareness, and you’ll have the opportunity to act with intention.
Instead of letting negativity control your experience, you get to choose your own path forward.