I often walk around town without my glasses, going from my house to the gym. Given my slightly impaired eyesight, I pay extra attention to any possible wave or smile coming from someone I know. On occasion I falsely attribute a blurred face as smiling in my direction, when in fact it was intended for someone else. My knee-jerk reaction is to smile back.
Slight embarrassment aside, it’s purely human nature to smile when you think someone is smiling at you. Most of the time it is unconscious and outside your control. Part of being human is being a social animal and as such you tend to mimic the nonverbal behavior you perceive. Seeing a frown leads to more frowning and seeing a smile to leads to more smiling. Your action is influenced by the social cues you are gathering and then adapting to.
Just consider yawning.
One of the great mysterious of our time has been the contagiousness of yawning. If you see someone next to you yawning, you are likely to start yawning. It’s bizarre. An episode of the popular show Mythbusters came to the conclusion that yawning does indeed spread among a group. The reason seems to be an evolutionary tic where you are unconsciously mimicking the behavior of others to form a tighter social bond. The closer in relationship you are to the yawner, the more likely you are to yawn.
While smiling and yawning seem minor in importance, the prospect that our behavior is contagious has vast implications. It shatters the idea that you are in complete control of your emotional state and are consciously aware of how you are affected. Instead, you are being affected by others without even knowing it. You are influenced by a constant stream of unconscious triggers.
Consider the people you spend your time with. Have you ever noticed how some people can energize you while others drain you? Similar to how seeing a smile or yawn can trigger that very behavior, someone’s positive or negative disposition can cause you to unconsciously mirror their feelings. Their nonverbal negativity may cause you to transmit comparable negative emotions. You are transmitting your individual emotions into a something that becomes a collective feeling. The mix of emotions reaches a convergence point and the mood is set.
Enter into a group of passionate people and you are bound to leave invigorated; walk into a crowd of melancholy folks and you are likely to leave bummed. If a friend is sneezing you may catch a cold, if they are endlessly complaining you may find yourself feeling more negative. You caught their negativity.
In Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (Back Bay Books, 2011), authors Christakis and Fowler explain how people within groups are influenced by the behavior they witness. Being a part of a group often leads to a ripple effect across multiple degrees of connection. In other words, emotions or behavior can be contagious. In a widely debated finding, the authors argued that divorce rates were widely influenced by the behavior of friends. Both positive and negative emotions can spread like a virus.
I would much rather catch a positive vibe. Being aware of this, I have the power to surround myself with people that are also happy and enthusiastic—staying within a feedback loop of positive feelings. Life is good.
Life, of course, brings you many situations where you may have family or friends that are stuck in a negative state. “Debbie Downers” who are not grieving over a lost loved one or lost job, but merely in a constant state of negativity. The easy solution is to stay away from the possible contagion. On the other hand, knowing the contagiousness of feelings, it is well within your reach to spread your positivity to them. If you can catch someone’s negativity, they may also be able to catch your good vibes. Your positivity is spreadable. Perhaps it’s time to pay it forward.
So if you see me stumbling around the streets without my glasses this fall, feel free to smile in my direction. Whether I recognize you or not, which may be doubtful with my weakened eyesight, you know for sure I’ll smile back.