Emotions are currency, the exchange rate is empathy

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We live in a world where statistics tell us how things are and the chances of something happening. Many of us take statistics we hear as facts, assuming that they apply to each of us individually. While statistics are immensely useful and they can give us startling insights and make astonishing predictions, we all know that we are individuals, not statistics.

We would be correct in dismissing many statistics as impersonal and lacking a true meaning for anyone in particular.

For example, we hear that the average human lifespan is ‘x’ for females and ‘y’ for males, but that figure varies from one country to the next and also varies tremendously with any one person’s dietary or other lifestyle habits. So, while statistics might provide a loose guide, they are not specific to any of us in particular.

Similarly, we hear that the likelihood of cancer, or the survival rate from one disease or other is such and such a number, but again, that varies greatly from one person to the next. It is a statistic made up of average outcomes averaged over a large number of people whose life circumstances vary greatly and who live under a variety of conditions and have different dietary habits.

Hidden within statistics are details most of us miss. It’s these details that most of us resonate more strongly with. I’d like to illustrate this with the contagiousness of emotions, and happiness in particular because this is something that affects us all.

Using data from a large social network of around 5000 people, Nicholas Christakis, professor of social and natural sciences at Yale, and James Fowler, professor of medical genetics at UC San Diego, calculated that the chances of catching happiness from someone is 15%. That’s a figure that has since been banded around a bit and most people assume that it applies to each and every one of us.

The figure actually represents a social network of a typical town in the US (Framingham) and means that if someone you know, whether a family member, friend, work colleague, or social tie becomes happier, then there is a 15% chance that you will become happier as a consequence. But it is an average statistic.

First, before I explain, you’d be forgiven for wondering how it’s even possible to ‘catch’ happiness. Surely your happiness is your own and is down to your own choices and what happens in your life. Well, it happens in a couple of ways. One is through emotional contagion, the other is through social contagion.

Emotional contagion is where we directly catch someone’s emotions, mostly due to a brain circuit known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS), which essentially copies (mirrors) a person’s emotional expression – the facial expressions as they express emotion, bodily expressions, vocal intonations, etc – which then replicates in you the emotion that corresponds to those muscle movements.

Social contagion is where we copy (not always intentionally) behaviour and attitudes. A person feeling happy might indulge in different behaviour from when they weren’t quite so happy, and if you are hanging with them then you might likely indulge in that behaviour too. Either way, we are always catching emotions from each other.

But to say that the chances of you catching happiness from someone is 15% misses something very important. Christakis and Fowler pointed out that the figure is an average, and one that varies from one person (or relationship) to the next, and from one set of circumstances to the next.

To illustrate, the 15% figure is an average over all your relationships – close friends, distant friends, family members, neighbours, work colleagues you interact with. If you were to just count your friends (so not your family members, neighbours, colleagues, etc) you would have a 25% chance of becoming happier if a friend becomes happier. Now, what if you only counted your closest friends, the ones you see most often and spend most time with? Now the figure jumps to 63%. You have a 63% chance of becoming happier if a close friend becomes happier.

There’s a world of difference between 15% and 63%, just as there is a world of difference in lifespan (and healthspan, i.e. vitality in old age) between two people who indulge in vastly different lifestyles.

As we know from online social networking, ‘friend’ has a rather broad meaning these days. Most people only have a small number of close friends – between 2 and 6. But if someone asked us to name our friends, we would likely name many more than this, and the quality of friendship would vary from one to the next. As ‘friends’ we would not only include close friends, we would also name people we see from time to time but are not that close with. In the study, the figure of 63% comes from close friends only, the ones we spend time with regularly. You can catch emotion in a single meeting, but it takes consistency for it to stick.

It turns out that catching happiness depends on the type of friendship, or more specifically, how you see the friendship. Happiness is more contagious if you’re close to someone, for example, or if you like them.

For example, if I named Adam as a friend, whether he named me or not his happiness would have about a 25% effect upon me. This is the 25% figure quoted above if you just count your friends. But if Adam named me as a friend and I didn’t name him, that is, it was a one-way friendship – he sees me as a friend, but I don’t see him in the same way – then the effect would only be 12%. Adam’s change in emotional state would have little effect on me because I don’t consider Adam to be as much of a friend as he sees me. As a result, his emotional state has less of an impact on me. But if we named each other as a friend, so the friendship is clearly mutual, it goes both ways, the likelihood of me catching his happiness is 63%.

It turns out that the contagiousness of happiness (and all emotions) depends on how you see the friendship. In my opinion, empathy is what matters. Emotional contagion, as it is called, depends on how much you empathise with a person, how much of them you let in. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone. Empathy is, “I Feel with you,” according to Kristen Neff, associate professor in the department of emotional psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “I see you” is another interpretation, made popular in the film, Avatar. It is how you ‘see’ a person, whether you see them as a friend or not.

In one sense, emotions are currency, they are exchanged from one person to the next. We can catch happiness, depression, even love and fear. But how much you catch depends on how you see a person. It depends on how much you empathise with them.

In addition, whether you accept what someone tells you or whether you will do as they ask – a transaction – will depend to a large extent on how the person makes you feel. If you don’t feel good, you don’t empathise with the person, or don’t like the person, you’re much less likely to do what he or she asks, and even if you do, you might resent the person. But if you do like them, you empathise with them, or like how they make you feel (perhaps because you agree with them or can see the value in what they ask you to do), then you will more likely do it. The transaction will be successful. This is the basis of leadership.

So, emotions are currency, and they regulate many things, but empathy is the exchange rate. So just like if someone gave you 1 unit of something, say 1 Euro or 1 dollar, it does not equate to 1 British pound. How much of the 1 unit you get depends upon the exchange rate. In the same way, how much of a person’s emotions you catch also depends on an exchange rate.

But here, the exchange rate is empathy.

Happiness is contagious, but how much you catch depends on how you feel about the person who shares it.

You can read more about this and similar studies, covering many aspects of emotional and social contagion, in David R Hamilton, PhD, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking‘, Hay House (London, 2011).

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