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People Want Positivity - So Says Harvard Researchers!
4th October 2021 • Social Skills Coaching • Patrick King
00:00:00 00:15:38

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People want positivity. This might be the surprising part: a positive mood spreads impressively as a result of emotional contagion. People just like being around positive and happy people because it makes them feel the same.

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Patrick King is an internationally bestselling author and social skills coach. emotional and social intelligence. Learn more or get a free mini-book on conversation tactics at

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This piece might be surprising.

No doubt you’ve heard about the power of positivity countless times throughout your life. It is all around us, really, from motivational speakers, successful entrepreneurs, and world-class athletes to advertisements, greeting cards, fortune cookies, self-help books, ad infinitum. All these messages consistently seem to give some variation of that simple piece of advice: just be positive and everything you are seeking will magically come your way.

But is that just a tired cliché, or is it the real deal? Is there scientific evidence to support positivity as an effective means of being socially successful and well-regarded by others? Is positivity the power we need to make the world a better place? After all, you would think that people wouldn’t keep endorsing positivity if they didn’t feel like it contributed to their success.

As it turns out, there is scientific evidence for positivity’s power, but it might not be for the reasons that you would expect. All of us on this planet are connected in such a way that our emotions can spread to one another and be felt incredibly easily. And this isn’t just limited to face-to-face interactions, but actually includes influencing and being influenced by people we don’t even know exist.

At first, it can be a bit hard to believe that this is the case. It sounds more reasonable to say that we can impact the people we interact with closely, but it’s a far bigger step to say that our personal state of being at any given time actually affects just about everything around us. But think about how you feel about seeing particularly happy or sad news on the television, or the last movie you cried while watching. Now imagine all the people watching the same thing the exact moment that you do. Mass media and the internet reaches a vast population. Consider this, and you’ll realize how we can affect each other’s psyches more than you thought possible.

the people around us. Between:

Your chances of happiness increase by 42 percent when a friend who lives within half a mile of you becomes happy.

Your chances of happiness increase by “only” 25 percent if that happy friend lives a mile away from you.

Siblings who live close to a happy sibling increase their chances of happiness by 14 percent.

Next-door neighbors of a happy person have a 35 percent higher likelihood of happiness.

The fact that happiness is spreadable was even more apparent when the researchers graphed the social networks they were studying according to each participant’s physical location. Every individual in the network was represented by a dot that was colored on a spectrum according to that person’s happiness, with blue being the unhappy end of the spectrum and yellow the happy one. Rather than a seemingly random distribution of colors like you might expect, similar colors tended to form clusters with each other, indicating that our emotional states are not at all independent of our physical surroundings.

The results were explained by one of the authors of the study, Dr. Christakis, who said, “You would think that your emotional state would depend on your own choices and actions and experience, but it also depends on the choices and actions and experiences of other people, including people to whom you are not directly connected. Happiness is contagious." James H. Fowler, his coauthor, added to this by saying, "We need to think of happiness as a collective phenomenon. If I come home in a bad mood, I may be missing an opportunity to make not just my wife and son happy, but their friends."

What can you do with this knowledge about the amazing contagiousness of positivity? The answer to that question can be broken into two main pieces.

The first is determining, to whatever extent possible, whom we spend the majority of our time around and how that impacts our emotional state. If you are surrounded by happy people, the evidence suggests that you will be much more likely to be happy yourself. And if being close to one happy friend can make you 42 percent more likely to be happy yourself, just imagine what two, five, ten, or fifty happy friends could do for you. At the same time, think about the effects of having those same numbers of friends in your life if they are often grumpy, annoyed, unhappy, or otherwise psychologically negative influences.

It’s impossible to control your environment completely. No one will ever be 100 percent prepared against a storm of bad vibes, so to speak. But you will always have that freedom to surround yourself with good vibrations. You can choose your friends wisely. This certainly seems to be one of the healthiest decisions we can make for our own well-being. As the saying goes: avoid the unlucky and the unhappy.

The second thing you can think about and act upon when it comes to contagious positivity is being a personal hub for positivity. Act like the Wi-Fi hotspot from where good vibes emanate! Indeed, this is where all the cliché advice leads to—just be positive! But as mentioned, it’s not necessarily beneficial for the reasons typically espoused. In reality, if you are happy yourself, you’ll be able to indirectly spread that to everybody around you. Being able to make other people feel good in your presence is about as valuable a social skill as there is, because they’ll simply want you around more, miss you when you’re not close by, and desire your presence.

Not only that, but you can try to impact another person’s happiness directly by being nice or complimentary to them, or just having a positive mindset when you interact with them. It is the simplest and littlest of the things we can do that can bring a lot of happiness. The more happiness you spread, the more it can come back around to you.

If you aren’t particularly witty, entertaining, or outgoing, simply cultivating a positive attitude can be the most worthwhile first step in gaining social status.

Notice the good in bad situations, and turn failures into lessons and teachable moments. Focus on the present and try not to be ruled by the past or the future. Attempt to ignore invasive, pessimistic thoughts. Keep people’s spirits up by appearing to be unflappable—this makes you reliable and predictable in a good way. React in a calm and measured way when facing obstacles, and know that you can choose your next steps. Practice gratitude—look around and name five things you are grateful for, from big to small—and know that it is nearly impossible to feel gratitude and anger or disappointment at the same time. When you know how bad it can be, you know how good you have it.

The theory of social and emotional contagion is the true psychological reason that emotions are shared from one person to another so easily, with happiness and positivity being only one facet of that.

beginning with Schachter in:

Barsade at Yale University in:

The study’s participants, business school students, were broken up into small groups for a simulated management exercise. Each student was asked to role-play a department head who would advocate for their employee to get as large a merit-based bonus as possible. At the same time, all the students were expected to work together in a committee that determined how best to allocate a limited pot of funds to provide the most overall benefit to the company.

Unbeknownst to the study participants, there was also an actor inserted into each group who was trained to convey one of four different mood conditions: cheerful enthusiasm, serene warmth, hostile irritability, or depressed sluggishness.

So how much do you think the emotional state portrayed by that single actor in each group could impact all of the unaware students during the negotiation?

The results revealed a significant effect of emotional contagion. The actors that conveyed cheerful enthusiasm or serene warmth spread those feelings to the other members of their groups, who then displayed greater cooperation and less interpersonal conflict with each other. In addition, these groups actually made decisions that allocated the bonus funds more equitably than the other groups, and they reported having more positive feelings about their individual performances than their counterparts in the groups with actors conveying negative emotions.

Interestingly, when the students were asked what had caused them to allocate the funds the way they had, as well as why their group had performed the way it did, they most commonly attributed it to their personal negotiating acumen, or the qualities of the “candidates” on whose behalf they were negotiating. They didn’t even suspect that their behavior and decisions, or those of their group, had been steered by the emotional state of an actor.

You can probably see how significant a role this emotional contagion effect can have on your popularity. If your likability has a lot to do with how people feel in your presence, and the actual emotional nature of your presence can impact how people feel, then you have a direct method to become more likable.

By being consciously positive and putting on a happy face more often than not, you can impart that positivity onto your peers and use your social influence to create more cooperative and friendly environments around you. At the same time, your negative emotional states are just as powerful in the opposite way. When you’re feeling irritable, sluggish, or sad, you should still try to put on a happy face while socializing, lest you infect your friends or colleagues with your negative emotions. Misery doesn’t just love company; it also creates it.

Nothing describes better the contagious power of emotions than being in a crowd. If you’ve ever been to a sporting event where you were cheering for the “away” team, you’ve had a chance to experience the power of the emotional contagion phenomenon on a large scale.

When you watch a sports game on TV, either alone or with a small group, your emotional state is mostly going to be determined by the performance of the team you want to win. But when you are in a stadium or arena and surrounded by thousands of fans who are full of energy and rooting for the opposite side, it can feel like your team’s performance doesn’t affect you to nearly the same degree as it normally would.

When things go poorly for your team but the home crowd is pumped up with positive energy as a result, it’s almost difficult to not be a part of that positive energy, too. And when your team does well, but that makes everybody around you feel negative, you probably won’t enjoy your team’s success as much as you might if you were watching at home. Of course, there are instances of extreme fanaticism or genuine animosity between fans that might mitigate these effects, but in most cases, they will hold true.

There is just no getting around the fact that our emotions will impact others and that we will likewise be impacted by theirs. Achieving social success, therefore, starts with being a positive influence on others and removing or diminishing the negative influences on ourselves.