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Day in the Life

Century Park Blog

Our Emotions are Contagious... Now What?

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Our Emotions are Contagious... Now What?

In the book Build the Life You Want by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey, the authors recall a terrible plague which occurred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, one of the most renowned Roman Emperors (161-180 A.D.).

Marcus Aurelius' wisdom was revered both during his lifetime and in the centuries which followed. He was also admired for demonstrating calm stoicism during a crisis. When this particular plague ravaged his empire, Aurelius didn't focus on the danger of the sickness itself but rather pointed to the danger of mass hysteria, paranoia, and callous self-interest which accompanied the plague. The emperor used the term "emotional contagion" to describe social and cultural crises which arose during the plague, declaring that "the corruption of the mind is a pest far worse than any contagion of the air… it affects our humanity."

With the recent COVID pandemic still fresh in our minds, many of us remember the crippling sense of isolation which accompanied the pandemic, as well as the loneliness, fear, uncertainty, and personal and economic turmoil that followed many months of being quarantined inside. Marcus Aurelius, as usual, was very astute in foreseeing how the crises during his own lifetime would parallel our similar crises today. And even though COVID seems to be in our rearview mirror for the most part, other social and cultural challenges may lead to a sense of "emotional contagion" (hint: it's an election year).

The term "emotional contagion" conjures up many associated ideas, all of them negative. Words that come to mind include repugnant, reprehensible, ominous, even toxic. We should try whenever possible to avoid people whose "emotional contagion" threatens to bring us down to their level of pessimism and negativity. Fans of classic episodes of Saturday Night Live might remember the characters "Negative Nancy" and "Debbie Downer." Sometimes avoiding these types of people may be as simple as changing our daily routines or intentionally choosing to be more selective about our friend groups. Other times, however, these sources of "emotional contagion" may be impossible to avoid because we work closely with them or because they are a part of our family. If this is the case, what can be done?

Here's an idea: make an effort to be "emotionally contagious" in a positive and uplifting way. Remember, "contagious" means it's easy for other people to "catch" it. If you are "emotionally contagious" with joy, hope, encouragement, sympathy, goodwill, and generosity, maybe those around you will "catch" your positive spirit and will begin to change their own attitude and mindset.

If you have been experiencing conflict with someone, remember the words of Mother Teresa: "Peace begins with a smile." Taking the initiative to smile and greet others with genuine warmth can go a long way toward creating a positivity that is truly contagious. This, in turn, makes us more productive, more grateful, and more willing to help others.

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