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Beware of the company you keep


What most people don’t appreciate is the extent to which people influence you emotionally. This spans across every strata of your life and includes intimate relationships, friendships, colleagues and those you hang out with and family. 

Who we surrounds ourselves with impacts on us beyond our habits and behaviours. It physically affects the way we feel.

As we shall see later, this is not restricted to in-person relationships alone; it has even been observed through online social media. Have you ever hung around someone whose enthusiasm was infectious and inspiring? What about a person who always complains about everything? Didn’t you yourself start becoming agitated and compelled to moan without any real reason? How about a relationship with someone lazy, but lovable?

This phenomenon is called emotional contagion and nearly 30 years of research have proved its validity. Catching emotions is a real concern, especially if you are building relationships and helping others.

This exercise is dedicated to showing you how emotional contagion works, where it may be affecting you and what you can do to protect yourself. As defined by Elaine Hatfield, a pioneering researcher within Relationship Science, Emotional Contagion is “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronise expressions, vocalisations, postures and movements with those of another person’s and consequently, to converge emotionally.”

A groundbreaking study conducted in 1992 by one Guacomo Rizzolatti discovered brain cells that responded equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform that same action. In other words, seeing someone sad could fire off those same cells and create the same sensation within us.

In Neuroscience, those cells are referred to as ‘mirror neurons’ and they have provided the foundation of studying emotional transfer ever since.

According to this study, emotional contagion leverages neurons through three stages. One, mimicry. People tend to automatically mimic the facial expressions, vocal, posture and behavior of those around them. Two, feedback. People feel a pale reflection of other people’s emotions as feedback. Three, contagion. The result is that people tend to catch one another’s emotions.
When we breakdown the circumstances, it becomes apparent how important rapport and intensity of emotion are for facilitating this process. The more rapport you have with someone, the more likely you are to mimic his/her behaviour and feel his/her emotions. Likewise the stronger the emotion, the more impact the transfer would have on you.

As we move forward looking for scenarios that could be relevant in our lives, please consider that awareness is the first step for fending off mimicking bad behaviour from others. To prevent unconsciously assimilating emotions, paying attention is a critical step in being able to prevent unwanted transference.

Here are areas of life that can be affected by the unconscious spread of emotion:

Emotional contagion occurs in relationships, romantic ones in particular. Note the strong relations prevalent in your interactions. You may be fond of your partner, despite her being inherently prone to negativity and pessimism. The question you need an answer to is whether your partner’s emotions are affecting you frequently. You may be attracted by the idea of fixing people.

Rather than hoping for your partner to change, why not consider finding someone whose emotions are beneficial to you? It has been established that people seldom change, so never bank on changing people’s behaviour. Instead, associate with someone whose passion, positivity and ambition drive you to be the best you can be.

For friendships, if you love helping others, it is even more critical that you protect yourself by taking tough decisions on who you spend your time with. I have had to excuse myself from a group of friends recently. I stopped hanging out with them because most of them have become beggars.

Most of them, younger than me, lost their jobs for various reasons, but from my observation, they are dishonest. They smuggle, engaged in extortion and racketeering. They shamelessly enter beer parlours expecting you to pay for them. They like to blame their incompetence on bad governance.

We met at the workplace before, but they have now lost their jobs owing to dishonesty. Thus, I quit spending time with people who don’t want to help themselves. You provide them with suggestions of how to move forward, but they bat them away with a barrage of excuses without ever trying anything tangible.

To shut out unwholesome influence, here are what to do: Raise your energy and positivity to an overwhelmingly infectious level. Make a conscious decision to surround yourself with successful people.

Lastly, allow these captains of industry to pollute your emotions. You must respect yourself by having more, say in who you allow into your life. Sadly, emotional contagion is not limited to in-person interactions; it exists in social media, particularly Facebook.

Facebook conducted a controversial study in 2014 to investigate emotional contagion through social networks. Its results suggest that emotions expressed by friends via online social networks influence our own moods, constituting evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.

It also provides support for previously contested claims that emotions spread via contagion through a network.

In this time of global crisis and worldwide turmoil, from Donald Trump to Brexit, our feeds are increasingly full of anger, hatred, anxiety, and conflict. Take an appraisal of what you are consuming. Look for more positive content to elevate your mood.

Finally, emotional contagion is real and it is affecting your life, whether you like it or not. Accept its existence and decide what you are doing about it. You need to review the people in your life and evaluate your consumption of social media.

In life, it is not selfish to set yourself a high standard and put your needs and self first. Don’t be shy to distance yourself from toxic people. Be a person who takes responsibility and who chooses to surround himself with positive, ambitious and passionate people.

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