Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Why Are Emotions Contagious?

When someone smiles at you, you smile back. Why is this?

We all share emotions, and we’re all affected by the emotions others share with us. We spread our emotions through face-to-face conversations, phone calls, emails, Facebook posts, tweets, or in wordless expressions :-)

These all influence the moods of others.

When someone smiles at you, you smile back. This is known as imitation. If someone cries, you experience more or less sadness and/or urge to help. In small children, such contagion is irresistible. Any preschool teacher will confirm times when one crying kid has led to all the kids being in tears.

Why is this? Is there some kind of benefit underlying the emotional contagion between human beings?

According to an article published by Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo and Richard L. Rapson, emotional contagion is ”the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”

From an evolutionary perspective, emotional contagion is essential for survival. For example, when threatened by a predator, emotional arousal spreads within a prey group and enables more of the animals to escape from danger. Researchers at the University of Chicago observed that rats became distressed when they saw other rats in distress, and they displayed pain behavior if they saw other rats in pain, suggesting that the most principal form of empathy is well-known to other species. Emotional contagion serves human beings as well, it was helpful to our ancestors, enabling them to understand each other in a time before verbal communication was possible.

Although we tend to believe that, as adults, we’re adept at emotional management and control, even the most stoic among us is susceptible to emotional contagion. 

Beyond The Purchase is a website dedicated to understanding the psychology behind spending decisions and the relationship between money and happiness. We study how factors like your values and personality interact with spending decisions to affect your happiness. At Beyond The Purchase you can take quizzes that help you understand what motivates your spending decisions, and you’ll get personalized feedback and tips. For example:

How do you score on the five fundamental dimensions of personality? Take our Big Five personality test and find out.

How do you feel about your past, present, and future? Take the Time Attitudes Survey and learn about your relation with time.

How happy are your Facebook updates? We can analyze your last 25 Facebook status updates and determine how happy you have been.

How happy is your subconscious? Take our Happiness IAT and find out.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. To read more about the connection between money and happiness, go to the Beyond the Purchase blog.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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