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Is your happiness dependent on your neighbor’s? To some degree, yes.
“Happiness isn’t just a personal experience, it is actually affected by the individuals around you,” said UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD.
Mirgain uses the description of a ripple effect. Like when a pebble is dropped into the water causing ripples, our words, actions and feelings affect those around us, who in turn affect individuals who come into contact with them, and so on.
“How an individual feels can ripple through his or her social groups and actually influence how the group feels in general,” she said. “In some ways, our emotional states are like a virus — we can spread the positive and negative experience to those around us, even with strangers.”
She points to research done over a period of time that found the happiness of an individual extends up to three degrees of separation (that is, our level of happiness impacts the happiness levels of the friends of our friends’ friends.) Similarly if you have a friend, relative or neighbor who lives within a mile and becomes happy, this increases the probability that you will be happy by 25 percent.
The impact of negative emotions
Think about how your own mood can be impacted by a sales clerk who smiles, is helpful and kind as opposed to one who is rude and unhelpful.
In one case, the clerk’s happiness creates a positive connection between you, while the other experience might leave you feeling frustrated or even angry. In both cases, a complete stranger’s attitudes influenced your own and you might in turn pass that attitude along to others — either through your good mood or your irritation.
In the case of negative emotions, Mirgain explains that they can actually have a greater impact than positive ones. When comparing the effects of a positive relationship to a negative one, the de-energizing connection (or negative) has an impact that is four to seven times greater than a positive or energizing relationship.
One place where this is easily seen is in the workplace.
“Research has shown that a 'toxic' co-worker — someone who is always negative, gossips about others or has a poor attitude — can actually be damaging to a workplace,” she said. “The negativity may lead to an environment where there is less information sharing, more conflict among team members, less trust and a lower performance by all members overall.”
Dealing with a negative co-worker can leave others feeling emotionally tired, unhappy and dissatisfied, which is why it’s important to address the negativity rather than try to ignore it.
The same is true when dealing with a negative friend or family member. In both cases, it might not be possible to stop all interactions, but it’s important to have a strategy for when you do need to interact. Mirgain explained that it starts by creating physical and emotional distance from the individuals.
“Consider the ways you can minimize interactions with the person and set boundaries,” she said.
Managers might consider reassigning projects to limit the interactions the individual has with the overall team. Co-workers can consider not engaging the individual beyond the minimum necessary. And if it is a friend or family member, limit conversations to those topics you known won’t trigger the negativity.
“It can be challenging, but don’t let yourself get sucked into the negativity by joining in with it, such as complaining, gossiping or even by dwelling on the person’s behavior. It will only bring you down,” Mirgain said. “Remember that the other person’s behavior has very little to do with you — they are dealing with their own issues.”
Tips for staying positive
While it might seem like we’re at the mercy of others’ attitudes, Mirgain said that we do have some control: We can choose how we respond. To start, she offers some tips:
Share your feelings
When something gets under our skin, we can spend a lot of mental energy thinking about it. Instead, Mirgain suggests finding someone you trust and sharing your thoughts and feelings. It can take the sting out of the hurt and help you get moving in a positive direction again.
Talk to yourself
Think about what words you can tell yourself to help gain some perspective on the situation or that can help calm you down when a "hot button" issue gets brought up. A simple phrase to remind yourself like "let it go" or "breathe deep" can help refocus your thoughts.
Surround yourself with positivity
Your time is a valuable and limited resource. Just like any investment, choose wisely how you are going to spend it. Limit the time you spend with negative people and situations and instead, focus on the positive. It might mean you limit the amount of time you spend with someone, which can be particularly difficult when it is a loved one. But negative emotions — like positive ones — can impact your overall health and sense of well-being. While it could feel selfish on some level, you are taking the steps you need to care for your own health.
Get some sleep
Mirgain points to two studies on the effects of poor sleep and a couple’s ability to resolve conflict in their relationship. Essentially, couples who experienced poor sleep experienced more conflict in their relationships, were less empathetic toward the other person when trying to resolve issues and less likely to achieve resolution. When you’re tired, you don’t have the mental energy needed to redirect negative emotions and can more easily be overwhelmed by them. So get the sleep you need so you have the energy to deal with any issues.
Nurture the positive
There are many ways to help nurture the positive: Keep a journal, get out in nature, find the awe in every day and practice happiness.
"We have greater control over our emotions than we often realize," Mirgain said. "And taking care of our emotions is really about taking care of our overall health."