Can Science Make You Happy?

Aristoteles wrote about it over 2300 years ago, there exist numerous magazine articles with tips on how to get more of it, and it is the central topic of many movies: Happiness. We discuss it over and over again, and we are prepared to do a lot to get it. In 2009, Gretchen Rubin published a book titled The Happiness Project. In her book, Rubin sets out on a mission to become a happier person and increase her enjoyment of day-to-day life. As preparation for her project, she reads scientific studies about happiness and topics related to it, such as emotions. As Rubin starts her one-year-project, she uses and applies the knowledge presented by these studies to achieve her goal of becoming a happier person. Similar to the researchers whose studies Rubin reads for her happiness project, researchers in the field of entertainment communication study happiness - and how this is influenced by communicating with others.

Communication scientist study how people transfer messages to each other and how this affects people. One type of message that people send out daily, are (implicit) messages about how they feel. Our facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice tell other people about the emotions we are experiencing. In the 1990’s, researchers discovered that when people express their emotions, they can ‘infect’ others with them. Hatfield, Cacioppo and Rapson described this phenomenon and called it emotional contagion. They explain that when people see another person expressing an emotion, unconsciously, they tend to adopt this emotion. The author of The Happiness Project applies this knowledge in her daily life: By expressing positive emotions, she makes her young daughters more cheerful because they pick up her emotions.

Emotional contagion does not only occur in face-to-face communication. Researchers Harris and Paradice discovered that people can also detect emotions in written messages. Moreover, in 2014, Kramer and his colleagues found that people pick up the emotions expressed in Facebook messages. In an experiment, they found that people who were exposed to a reduced amount of negative Facebook messages posted fewer negative messages and more positive messages themselves. This implies that emotional contagion can occur on a large scale; the emotions expressed in one message can be picked up by many people. Kramer and his colleagues therefore described their findings as massive-scale emotional contagion.

Of course, the downside of this interesting finding is that it can also work the other way around. People can not only be infected with positive emotions – negative emotions can be contagious as well. However, here is where the power of knowledge comes in. Personally, I am a firm believer of the notion that knowledge can turn people from passive bystanders into active agents. Now that you are aware of the notion of emotional contagion, you can actively try to not let negative emotions expressed by others get to you. Even better, just as Rubin does to make her children laugh, you can use your own positive emotions and infect others with a little bit of happiness every day.

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