How to Make People Happy and Yourself Feel Great – The Science of Emotions
I just finished another midnight shift at a job I did not like. I smiled, my eyes were open, I felt good about myself. I said my usual goodbyes to a friend and sprung into my car. My friend reversed his car before I had the chance to leave my car park. He had beaten me this time. It was an unspoken game that took place each time we left work. I waited for him to get out of the way before I reversed to make my way home.
As I drove, the open car park gave me an invitation to have a little fun with my car. If landscapes could talk, this one was whispering into my ear that I should spin the wheels. “Besides, it’s late at night. No one is around. It’s an open car park with no danger. Do it!” Like a vulnerable teenager succumbing to peer pressure, I accepted the invitation.
My foot pressed the accelerator as I spun the wheel left to get quick around the first corner. The rear tires lost their stability as the car slide side-ways. The car became an extension of my body as it mimicked my ecstatic mood. I entered the next turn and spun the wheel right. The sound of screeching tires was water fertilizing my increasing smile. Smoke filled the rims of my tires and a shot of adrenaline filled my body.
Following the two consecutive drifts, I straightened the car and approached a set of traffic lights on the main road that would take me home. Had this been during the daytime, about seven cars would be in front of me before the upcoming traffic lights.
My friend who had left before me had passed through the traffic lights three seconds ago so the lights were still green. Keeping in the mood, I put my foot down to catch the green light. I would safely make it. I turned around the corner with a soft screech of the tires. 20 meters in front of me on the side of the road were two police officers beside their vehicle. Lucky me.
The police pulled me over. Opposite to what you might be thinking, I was not concerned. I was still in my elevated state. I smiled. I wound down my window and an angry officer came charging at me, yelling, “What the hell are you thinking? What the hell is going through your mind?” I paused momentarily, unaffected by his aggressive state. I said smilingly, “I’m just happy, I guess.” Not a smart response. Not a smart response at all.
My happy mood seemed to pour fuel on his already raging fire. “Bloody hell mate! I could just give you a ticket right now!”
As I thought how to approach this difficult situation, I was still happy then it hit me. I knew I should have said something else. I gulped. My mind rushed to think of some communication techniques I could use as a life boat to save me from drowning in the conversation. All that came to mind were some techniques on getting out of a speeding-ticket. I annoyed the officer enough so surely it couldn’t get worse.
My smile began to lower. I no longer made eye contact with the officer. The officer’s raging mood began to infect me. He was making me feel angry. It was as if my body was overcome by an emotional virus from the officer who was the virus’ host.
I thought of the techniques to get out of a speeding-ticket and realized I was already beginning to use them. It was too late to make the officer feel safe as he approached the car, but I needed to no longer act oblivious to my mistake. I needed to show respect as officers are in a clear position of authority and often experience disrespect throughout their day that only makes them more determined to convict guilty citizens. “You’re right,” I replied. “I was stupid and careless.”
The officer was still enraged and continued to threaten me with a ticket. I knew he could easily write me a ticket, but he was not writing one. I kept myself aligned with the officer’s reality by remaining in a “Yes I’m wrong, stupid, and shouldn’t have done that” mood. I continued to play psychological judo, and match my mood with his own, until two minutes later he said to drive away. And oh, no ticket!
I drove off – though feeling pleased I had beaten a reckless driving ticket – in an irritated state. The officer had destroyed my happy mood. It took two minutes of talking with the officer to completely transform my happy state into a joyless, gloomy mood, which I remained in for another two hours until I went to bed.
The Science of Emotional Contagion – How Two Minds Infect One Another
People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.Maya Angelou, poet and actress
Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary.Mark Twain, highly quoted writer
You can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel.Anonymous
I am involved in all of mankind.John Donne, 16th century poet
My story depicts your reality with emotions. Everyday you interact with people in different moods. Sometimes you are happier than people; other times they are happier than you. Emotions transfer between people. This is a fascinating peculiarity with emotions. Have you ever noticed how we feel in our interactions is not only dependent on our internal state?
- How did you feel when someone really annoyed began talking to you? You became more annoyed.
- How did you feel when someone unhappy began talking to you? You become unhappy.
- How did you feel when a depressed person shared their misery with you? You felt depressed and miserable.
- How did you feel when a charismatic person talked to you? You felt his energy and you began to feel happier.
You can catch an emotional cold.
Psychologists call this phenomena “emotional contagion”. It is a psychological and physiological process – a transference of emotion that can occur from mimicking body language. Elaine Hatfield, a professor at the University of Hawaii, in a study with John Carlson and Christopher Hsee, had college students watch a videotape of a man describe two very emotional experiences: his life’s happiest and saddest events. While the college students watched the tape, they were taped so the researchers could record the students’ emotional responses. The students were also asked what feelings they experienced for each story at the end of the video.
Researchers found that students showed and expressed the recorded person’s emotions. The student’s felt happy when they watched the man describe his happiest event. The students felt sad when they watched the man describe his saddest event.
Hatfield and her two colleagues, John Cacioppo and Richard Rapson, in their co-authored book Emotional Contagion, say the psychophysiological phenomena occurs from automatically matching facial expressions, vocalics, postures, and movements. Hatfield says, “People tend to experience emotions consistent with the facial, vocal, and postural expressions they adopt.”
When you really listen to a friend, empathy puts you in their shoes to experience what they talk about. The friend describes an argument with an ex-partner, the yelling, the misunderstandings. You vividly see what your friend talks about. The experience lets you feel the pain your friend feels. Well-known psychologist Albert Bandura says the shared experience results in a shared feeling. That is the price of listening: not only can you catch a cold, but you can catch an emotional cold.
Mirror Neurons – The Mind’s Mirror
There is a scientific explanation behind how our emotions – an experience of mind and body – transfer to somebody else. In 1980s, three Italian researchers made what is said to be one of the greatest neuroscience breakthroughs in recent times: discovering the mirror neuron. Three researchers in an experiment attached electrodes to a macaque monkey’s brain. This enabled the researchers to determine what movements caused what neurons to activate. As the monkey reached for food, the researchers took note of single neurons being fired.
One time when the electrodes were still attached to the monkey, the researchers grabbed a piece of food themselves, then handed it to the monkey. To their surprise, the researchers saw the monkey’s neurons fire! By accident, the researchers had discovered that when they grabbed a piece of food, the monkey had the same neurons light up as if it picked up the food. The researchers came to name these neurons “mirror neurons” because they were like the mind’s mirror. The mirror neurons reflected what the person or monkey saw.
The finding may appear insignificant, yet the breakthrough discovery has lead to researchers to better understand autism, empathy, altruism, and general learning. Mirror neurons are responsible for tuning-in to another person’s behavior. The neurons are responsible for an awareness and shared-feeling between two people. This one type of neuron is responsible for the significant role of learning, understanding, and feeling.
How to Make Others Feel Great
An amazing, almost mystical link takes place to connect the brains thanks to the mirror neuron. A signal sent from either individual in the psychological connection travels via the link to similarly affect the recipient. Hatfield says, “We reflect what they feel.”
Smile at a baby, or almost anyone for that matter, and the baby’s mirror neurons fire to trigger an automatic smile. That is why the age-old saying, “smiling causes the whole world to smile with you”, is true. Not only is emotional contagion a replication of another’s emotions, but it is a biological dance. It is an interlinking of mind and body.
The biological dance is an important part in group dynamics. Janice Kelly, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, says emotional contagion causes people to converge into an affective homogeneous group. In other words, group members experience the same emotions overtime as their fellow members. Kelly says that people with highly expressive body language are more able to impose their emotions on others. The distinctive nonverbal signs allows individuals to pick up on the person’s emotions and become infected by their emotional state. Here we see another age-old saying, “monkey see, monkey do” proven.
How to Be Great
Another age-old theory of staying away from toxic people because they pull you down is now a physiological and psychological fact. Being around suppressing or uplifting people affects your body and mind. We were born for interaction and connection with one another. We are a social animal.
If you study self-help, you know the benefits of making friends with wealthy people if you want to be wealthy. If you want to be happy, you make friends with happy people. If you want to be confident, you make friends with confident people. If you want to be funny, you make friends with funny people. Observance creates transference.
Observance creates transference.
Athletes often play their sport better after watching superior athletes excel in the same sport through the magic of transference. You come to pick the characteristics you see in others because they infect you with their style, knowledge, and emotions. Being around people you want to be like is a secret of self-transformation to stimulate that emotional desire needed for growth.
Whether you intend to be infected by someone or not is irrelevant to mirror neurons because they are responsible for imitating other people. You do not decide to take in the exposure – the adaption from mirror neurons is an automatic process. Our parents told us to avoid hanging out with the wrong people for a reason. “People are like dirt,” said the classical Greek philosopher Plato. “They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.” It is reality that you absorb the characteristics of people you observe.
Put yourself in a group where the individuals are depressed and you will become depressed. Put yourself in a group where the individuals blame others and you will blame others. Put yourself in a group where the individuals are prejudice against blacks and you will become prejudice against blacks. Or in my case: do something stupid on the road in front of a police officer to make him angry so you become angry.
Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.
Mirror neurons are not all bad news. In fact, they can be wonderful! Mirror neurons do not have to be the only source of influence on your mood or way of thinking. You can still be with depressed, blame-filled, or prejudiced individuals without taking on their characteristics. Therapists, social workers, and doctors are a few categories of professionals who need to work with people in the “don’t infect me with your emotional disease” category. Even so, people in such professions have a harder time making themselves immune from emotional diseases because mirror neurons are a part of the brain every moment of life.
Though you and I will always be around less-than-optimal people, we need to put ourselves around people who have the characteristics and emotions we want. We naturally gravitate towards these people. They have a set of likable characteristics that draw us to them to bring out the best in ourselves. As Mark Twain said, “Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
The Brain’s Low Road and High Road: Brain Secrets to Smart Living
While emotional contagion is an important variable of the formula to become who you want, it is also important you do not rely on other people to make you feel good. Letting the emotional parts of your brain (mostly the almond-shaped amygdala located deeply beneath both sides of your temples) roam like a child on the street is dangerous. Neuroscientists say you can control emotional responses to a certain extent.
When our ancestors faced a dangerous predator, they had to make a quick decision, an emotional response void of time-consuming rationalization that puts the person’s life at risk. Their eyes would widen and pupils dilate to visually take in more information. They received a shot of adrenaline to increase the supply of oxygen and glucose to muscles for strength and speed. Unnecessary bodily functions like digestion became suppressed. In terms of brain functions, neurological signals detour the slow responding “high road” and take the “low road” to produce a quick response. (I recommend you grab Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence to better understand the neuroscience behind emotions).
In a low road response, the sensory signals bypass the cortex and go straight to the amygdala to produce a reflexive response. Going straight to the more primitive amygdala produces reflexive, unconscious decisions. Neuroscientists say these primitive parts of the brain are difficult to change.
One low road response could be your reaction to a loud bang. The ear-busting sound causes an adrenaline response like widened eyes, dilated pupils, and increased supply of oxygen all in the first few milliseconds you hear the sound. You quickly look towards the bang to rapidly calculate whether it signals danger. If you cannot see the source of the sound, you unconsciously resort to social proof by looking at people’s faces to see their reactions and how you should respond. These decisions take less than a second.
Babies are frightened by loud noises because they have yet to discover that loud noises can be safe. You would scream, cry, and sprint away from loud noises if your brain overtly emphasized the low road in everyday living. This is where the high road, a more analytical neurological path in your brain, comes in to better control your emotional responses.
The high road is a slower response path that uses the logical parts of the brain like the frontal cortex and the hippocampus (your memory) to respond appropriately to stimulus. These brain parts are vulnerable to neuroplasticity that describes physical change. The brain gradually shapes itself by learning that all loud bangs are not dangerous.
After the first seconds following a loud bang, your brain transitions over to the high road by analyzing the situation. While the low road is responsible for reflexive decisions beyond your control, the high road can jam a cognitive wedge in the low road to help you better adapt and survive. A cooking saucepan dropping on the hard kitchen floor does not trigger you to bash on a neighbor’s door for help.
The Scientific Method to Be Happy and Likable
Some neuroscientists say it is impossible to control all emotional responses due to the brain’s low road producing a quick response for survival. Researchers agree you can put your brain’s high road to better use. When you think about an emotional response, you use the logical prefrontal cortex to override the signals received by the emotional amygdala. This is where neuroscience meets personal development.
One of my favorite techniques that uses my high road to take me to happiness, stability, and understanding is reframing. In reframing, you manipulate your initial interpretation, often a quick-response, in a situation to produce a response that benefits you and your relationships.
A powerful reframe described in my Communication Secrets of Powerful People program is positive intention framing. In positive intention framing, you identify the positive intention relevant to the limiting situation. Let’s say you are in a serious argument with your spouse. Most people in such an argument let: 1) the low road control the argument as they react impulsively and later regret what they said during the heated disagreement and 2) emotional contagion infect themselves with a negative mood for hours following the argument. You can have a degree of control over impulsiveness and emotional infections by reframing.
A positive intention reframe could identify your spouse’s yelling as their need to be heard, understood, and received; instead of a personal attack. Alternatively, you could positively reframe your spouse’s yelling as a welcomed release of frustration so you can listen to what concerns him or her.
The purpose of positive intention reframing is to stop you from thinking your story is right and that hidden information exists. It does not directly manipulate your emotions, rather it opens your mind to empowering options, which alters your emotional state. Reframes use your prefrontal cortex to take the high road and interpret the situation in a way that lets you act resourcefully. Reframing is proven by research to be one of the most effective anger management techniques. (I give you six other specific, easy-to-use reframes for any situation in my program, which you can read about by clicking here.)
The Shocking Truth About Happy People
Happy people are experts at reframing initial interpretation (“He is a ****head for cutting me off in traffic!”) into empowerment (“He mustn’t have seen me”). They use their prefrontal cortex to take the brain’s high road. What happens outside does not matter because their mental attitude is what matters. “Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions,” said Dale Carnegie, “it is governed by our mental attitude.”
Contrary to what you may think when someone is angry, happy effective communicators do not think positively to stop themselves becoming angry. Let’s say an aggressive person talks to someone with effective communication skills. The effective communicator is able to defuse the aggression through their communication style even though the emotional aggression is still received. A good communicator feels the aggression, but they reframe their response, which enables them to control emotional contagion and a destructive low road reaction. They see it in frames such as, “He’s trying to get me to understand him.” or “I enjoy the problem coming to surface instead of it remaining hidden where it eats away the relationship.” These frames let the effective communicator efficiently respond.
The happy effective communicator does not avoid anger. The happiest people get angry, cry, and accept emotions. Happy effective communicators are so because they embrace all emotions and open their minds to other interpretations.
Happy effective communicators embrace all emotions.
Happy people express anger by owning it (“I am angry!”). The problem of emotional contagion in bad communication, therefore, is not the current emotion, but how it is expressed. Blaming someone for your anger (“You’re a ****en idiot!”) makes them angry. When you harmfully express anger, the emotional infection escalates. Alternatively, suppression of anger avoids reality as resentment builds and the relationship withers away to its death.
In terms of depression, emotional contagion and reframing is no different. Depressed individuals seek isolation to feel better about themselves. The isolation compounds their depression – an ironic effect. The solution to depression is too complex for discussion in this article, yet sufferers are better off interacting with happier people to beat depression than being in isolation. They need destructive interpretations (“I’m a loser”) reframed into ownership and empowerment (“I’m feeling down today”). Similarly, they should make mirror neurons benefit themselves by smiling – even if it feels artificial – as it forces the body to be happy.
Emotional contagion can work for you or against you. Its affect is decided by how you use the high road of your brain.
The Best Technique to Change People’s Emotions: Emotional-Leveling
We now see how reframing controls your responses to situations. What about other people’s responses? Should you let other people react in whatever way they happen to react? Can you use a technique to uplift other people and have emotional contagion help your relationships?
In general, do not worry about people’s responses because your response is what matters. Worrying over people’s responses is a powerless concern for the future. Trouble results the moment you try to directly manipulate a person’s emotions just like your own emotions.
Do not worry about people’s responses because your response is what matters.
Forcing your happiness on someone unhappy, negative, or angry is counter-productive. When I was happy and smiling, the angry police officer became more infuriated.
The next time someone around you is angry, look them in the eye, smile, and tell them, “What a beautiful day!” The person will become more angry and say something like, “It’s a disgusting day.” At times your happy attitude may change someone’s unhappy perspective, but the technique is unreliable because it suppresses present emotions. What is an effective communicator to do when emotional contagion creates an ineffective, unproductive environment?
How Fights Escalate with Emotional Contagion
Emotionally out of control conversations (or monologues) start with one person injecting an emotion into their conversation partner. When the partner is a poor communicator who reacts impulsively, his mirror neurons mimic the person’s harmful state. The newly infected person becomes a carrier, reciprocating the infection to the original carrier who’s emotional disease worsens.
Once the emotional infection becomes too much for the individuals, they leave the conversation only to contaminate other people. An emotional infection outbreaks. A simple disagreement escalates into a large – sometimes life-threatening – conflict with innocent people.
On one level you need to prevent yourself from being a carrier. When you talk to a friend in need, you are faced with the challenge of empathizing with your friend’s pain. You draw yourself into your friend’s struggle and feel the same pain. (True empathy does not make you a carrier.) At another level you need to prevent other people from being carriers. Sometimes people go nowhere productive and you need to put them into an emotionally empowering state. These mood challenges exist when you want to bring the best out of people.
The technique of reframing minimizes the likelihood of you carrying a dangerous emotional virus, while a technique I call “emotional-leveling” helps you prevent people from remaining in states that do them and others harm. Doing these two things controls emotional contagion to build happiness, power, and healthy relationships.
The emotional-leveling technique firstly adjusts your emotions to reflect the other person’s emotional state. You then slowly raise your emotions and simultaneously theirs with emotional contagion and mirror neurons until the person enters the desired state. The technique does not try to manipulate the person’s emotions; it encourages them to feel one’s emotions and then move forward in healing. (I cannot emphasize enough that you must allow others to accept and express their emotions. Do not use the emotional-leveling technique to avoid emotions.)
Again, you firstly connect at their level. Do not fight anger with happiness nor should you reciprocate verbal aggression. If the person is aggressive or depressed, take on a similar emotional level to build empathy and understanding. If an aggressive person walks around, walk around with him or her. If someone talks fast, you should also talk fast. For a depressed person, show you are also feeling depressed without developing depression. Be slower in your movements, speak softer, and have similar facial expressions as the person. Your goal is to enter their state without escalating the problem.
Once you connect at the person’s level and let him or her process present emotions, you then raise your emotional state. Make a joke or use a reframe on the situation. How does the mindset of this technique differ to being an annoying happy person smiling at everyone? Instead of reaching down to pull the person out of their emotional hole only to have them reject your assistance, you jump in the hole and let them stand on your shoulders to climb out.
Your reframes get accepted because you are in the person’s emotional state! If you were happy and told an unhappy mate who recently broke up that he should lighten up, he will reject your reframe and dislike you. On the other hand – and this is where the power of emotional-leveling comes in – if you are also unhappy after communicating with him, such that he knows you share the same emotional state, he will accept a reframe like, “Break ups are painful, yet they allow you and I to meet future partners we will love.”
If you combine the reframing technique with the emotional-leveling technique, you control your emotions and thoughts and help other people control their emotions and thoughts. These two skills help you and others express, share, and manage emotions that otherwise harm relationships. You transform what would normally be a destructive emotional outbreak into a positive outbreak.
Emotional contagion is a fascinating topic. You can make the psychological and physiological phenomena work for you instead of feeling you are its victim. Interact with people you want to be like. Reframe situations to travel along the high road to happiness. Make people’s mirror neurons mimic your rising state and their biology will become like yours. It seems like magic, but it is science.
Joshua Uebergang aka "Tower of Power"
Joshua Uebergang, aka "Tower of Power", teaches social skills to help shy guys build friends and influence people. Visit his blog and sign-up free to get communication techniques, relationship-boosting strategies, and life-building tips by email, along with blog updates, and more! Go now to https://www.towerofpower.com.au/free/