A friend who knows I work in teenage mental health sent me this link to a report on a new piece of research. Teenagers can catch moods from friends, study finds. “Who knew!” was her comment. Indeed. In the hierarchy of statements of the bl*****g obvious, this is right up there. But, as with virtually every headline, we need to drill down a bit. There is more to glean and more to say.
Just teenagers? really?
My first reaction was, “Yes, but mood is contagious for all age groups, surely?” Indeed, the research does not look at other age groups so we don’t know if this applies more to teenagers.
We are an empathetic species. Empathy doesn’t just mean knowing what someone might be feeling but taking on an element of the feeling ourselves. Now, we do know that teenagers – especially younger ones – are less good at deep empathy than older teenagers and adults. There’s a lot of research, including by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. But you don’t need advanced empathy to know that someone’s feeling sad, happy, anxious: advanced empathy comes in the ability to find nuance in those states and knowing something of why. You don’t need that to detect mood in the people around you. The people around you are showing mood in their faces, words, behaviour.
We know how hard it is to stay upbeat and happy when we are surrounded by people who are very sad or calm when everyone around us is anxious or positive when everyone around us is negative.
So, this much is obvious: not just that teenagers can catch moods from friends but that we all can.
Might teenagers be more prone to contagion?
Yes, but the research doesn’t show this. It’s quite likely that teenagers (on average) are more vulnerable to each other’s moods. Why? Three main reasons:
- Teenagers are usually (at least during school term-time) surrounded by more peers than typical adults are. So, more opportunities and more viral load, so to speak.
- They have (on average) less life experience and ability to shrug off the moods of others and less opportunity/desire to take themselves away from people as a self-protection measure. So, less immunity and antibody build-up, and less drive to keep “socially distanced”, you might say.
- Teenagers are (on average) more powerfully driven to act with the group and acting with the group means taking on some of the behaviours. Behaviours drive mood as well as the other way round. (Which is part of the basis for CBT: that by changing our behaviour (including mental behaviour) we change how we feel, thereby changing how we think and behave.)
Teenage moods might be more contagious than adults. It’s not a bad idea to act as though they are, especially if you care about teenagers.
What else is important to know, if the main headline is flaky?
Bad moods don’t lose you friends
“…there is a tolerance of different moods, and grumpy teenagers are no less popular with their peers than those with a more sunny disposition”. Hooray! Teenagers are decent people who generally, just like adults, want to help. They are understanding, supportive and able to be empathetic, just like the best adults.
Is bad mood more contagious than good mood?
This study claims to prove this but it doesn’t. It’s not the study’s fault, just the reporting of it.
“Mood is contagious, and though both positive and negative moods are ‘caught’, bad moods are more potent…. The findings contradict earlier research which has suggested that good mood is more contagious than bad.” All this means is that the studies, on relatively small numbers of people, and this one in a relatively rarified setting (young people travelling as part of an orchestra), had different results. We don’t know which would turn out to apply to a much larger study.
Does it really matter? I don’t think so. I certainly wouldn’t fund research to prove one or the other. Mood is contagious. We’re human. Yep.
The obvious conclusion to the obvious truth
“Therefore, we need to be aware of mood contagion and make sure the right support and services is given to schools and communities, and offering help to adolescents who are experiencing negative mood states.”
Of course. Being aware, understanding how humans work, is really my whole message on any topic to do with wellbeing: the more we understand of “how we work” the better we can help ourselves, and others, work well. We can better prevent problems and better solve them when they happen.
It’s worse on social media
The reason I say that is that if, as is the case even more during lockdown, your human contact is largely online, you’re only seeing the extreme displays of people’s mood. You’re seeing their outbursts of anger or anxiety or sadness or whatever. What you’re not seeing is the times when they’re just doing the gardening or cooking or reading a book or not thinking negative thoughts at all. So you’re seeing the worst, not the neutral.
The interesting question
This comes right at the end of the article. From co-author Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology: “And finally, if everyone is struggling, is it too emotionally risky to connect with others and potentially ‘catch’ their low mood?”
Here’s my answer
We have always known that there’s a risk to being around people who are in distress. This is why professionals whose job is to hear or witness upsetting stories – such as psychotherapists and war reporters – need therapy or counselling themselves to help offset that contagion. So, yes, there’s a risk. And there is likely (for the reasons I gave above) to be a greater risk for teenagers than for adults.
However, three things:
- As decent humans, we should listen. We should be there for each other, whatever age we are, but we must also know how to share that load. We listen, do our bit and help the person get other support if necessary. Helping others is also good for ourselves: although hearing someone’s sadness can make us sad, the knowledge that our listening was a generous act also benefits us. But see the point three.
- The knowledge that mood is contagious (and when young people know that, too) gives us the option to use good mood (perhaps generated by fun activities) to help raise the low mood of those around us. We shouldn’t feel bad when we can’t do this but it is an option once we know the power of good moods and how they can be created by certain positive or enjoyable actions.
- We can and must practise self-care. This means noticing when we are suffering from the moods of others and then taking ourselves away for a while, or doing something positive, so that we can recharge. When everyone around us is pulling us down, through no fault of their own, we need to protect ourselves. Look after yourself or you can’t look after others.
So, mood is contagious. What can you do this weekend to raise the mood of someone around you? How can you raise your mood and thereby the mood of your family, household or friends?
Smile and the world smiles with you! Or at least the person who sees your smile.