If you focus continually on making the world a better place in some small way, you and those you love will be happier, your life will have more meaning and purpose, and you will create a legacy that will give you peace in your later years.

The Web of Emotion: Everything we do makes the world better or worse.

In our age of entitlement, when self-interest is the norm and other people are deemed worthy only insofar as they agree with us and validate how we feel, it’s easy to lose sight of our inexorable interconnectedness. In fact, research on happiness shows that exclusive focus on the self at the expense of others is a sure route to misery. Here’s why.

All animals, including humans, use emotional displays to interact with one another. Aggression is the most dramatic example. Dogs growl, cats arch their backs, snakes hiss, horses stand tall and thrust their front legs forward, bulls kick sand, gorillas beat their chests, and humans puff up their muscles. (Early humans used to bellow and screech, which is why we talk in a more resonant and menacing voice when angry and want to scream in traffic.) There are just as obvious, though less dramatic, gestures of courtship, affiliation, interest, and playfulness in humans and other social animals.

Social animals, including humans, put out subtle emotional signals as well—most of which are outside conscious awareness—and these, too, affect how we interact with one another. Like all social animals, we can pretty much feel when someone is putting out positive or negative emotional energy, even if he or she makes no overt behavioral indication. Although we can’t tell what they’re thinking, we can read the emotional tone of most people—whether they are quiet or whether they are shouting—with a fair degree of accuracy.

Even when we consciously try to shut out our unconscious perceptions of one another, we retain our natural sensitivity to each other’s emotions. That’s why you feel different when you ignore your spouse, compared to the way you feel when he or she is not in the room with you. It’s why you feel different when you’re the only one walking down the street, compared to how you feel when the sidewalk is crowded with people, whom you try to ignore.

Our innate sensitivity to one another’s emotional states derives from the social nature of our central nervous systems. From the beginning of our time on this planet, humans lived in groups and tribes and communicated, in pre-linguistic times, exclusively by emotional transmission. We still communicate primarily by emotional transmission, which is why communication techniques, without emotion regulation skill, are hardly helpful. We are very much social animals, hard-wired to interact emotionally, in subtle yet profound ways, with everyone we encounter. On a deep, visceral level, we continually draw energy from—and contribute energy to—a dynamic web of emotion that consists of all people we interact with and everyone with whom they interact. Each person you pass on the street subtly reacts to you and vice versa. Everyone you pass by subtly influences each person he or she passes. In the web of emotion, you never react to just one person but to everyone that person has recently passed, and you influence everyone that person will subsequently encounter.

Whether we like it or not, we are emotionally connected to virtually everyone we perceive. Our only choice is to make the connection positive or negative, to put out compassion or download resentment, to clean up emotional pollution or contribute to it. Now the good news: The smallest positive contributions to the web of emotion make the world a better place and, if done consistently, ensure your own perdurable happiness.

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