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Be Happy, Be Healthy

by Julia McCartney on April 23, 2012

Happiness and good health go hand in hand, but many people feel like happiness is out of reach. That’s largely due to negative thinking, which is a type of cognitive distortion that often leads to unhappiness. Due to phenomena like mirror neurons and emotional contagion, one person’s cognitive distortions can quickly spread to other people. That’s why it’s vital to understand how negative thoughts and emotions work.

What Are Mirror Neurons?

Neurons are nerve cells that pass electrical charges between each other. Whenever a thought or action occurs, it’s a result of neurons firing. Mirror neurons are simply cells that activate regardless of whether an action is performed or observed. These cells are thought to be the basis of learned behavior, and mirror neurons exist in both humans and animals.

The connection between mirror neurons and negativity is that these cells operate without any regard to conscious thought. If you see another person performing an action, the mirror neurons in your brain will fire. The same is true whenever you interact with a negative person. The human tendency toward empathy may kick in, which can cause mirror neurons in your own brain to fire. That process can cause you to develop your own pattern of negative thinking.

What is Emotional Contagion?

If you spend a lot of time around happy people, you will tend to feel happy. The reverse is true if you spend a lot of time around angry people. This is known as emotional contagion because we tend to reflect the emotions of the people around us. Since negative emotions tend to be significantly stronger than positive emotions, a few negative people can drag down an entire group.

The human tendency toward empathy is one of the driving forces behind emotional contagion, and mirror neurons play a large part in the process. However, emotional contagion can also take place via telecommunications. That means you can be infected by negative thoughts via email, instant messaging, and other electronic methods that lack any direct contact.

Emotions and Health

Positive and negative thoughts can directly influence your health, which is why it’s vital to understand the effects of mirror neurons and emotional contagion. The placebo effect is one example of how positive thinking can have a real physiological impact. The other side of that is the nocebo effect. If someone is told that a placebo will have harmful effects, negative thinking can actually cause those symptoms to materialize.

That means you can have a direct impact on your own emotional and physical health by avoiding people who are negative or angry. You can also have a positive effect on the emotional states of negative people, but it typically takes several happy people to balance out even one unhappy person in a group setting.

Misconceptions About Happy People

There are a number of misconceptions about happiness that can prevent negative people from becoming happy or interacting with those who are perceived to be excessively positive. Some of these misconceptions are excuses that unhappy people use to explain their unhappiness, and others are reasons that negative thinkers use to avoid positive thinkers.

Since it takes multiple happy people to counteract the emotional contagion of one negative person, it’s vital to identify and dispel some of the most common misconceptions about happy people.

  • People are born happy.

    One of the biggest excuses for not being happy is that people are either born with a tendency toward happiness or unhappiness. That’s true to a point, and research has shown that genetics do help to determine whether a person will be a positive or negative thinker. However, genetic predispositions only account for about half of the total picture. That means your actions and life choices can definitely affect your own level of happiness.

  • Happy people are unintelligent or absentminded.

    This is the biggest stereotype that causes people to avoid those who seem to be happy all the time. There is a common misconception that happy people are childlike, naive, or simply less intelligent than negative people and cynics. However, there is no correlation between happiness and intelligence. In fact, happy people tend to be more successful than negative people.

  • Only young people are happy.

    The fact is that older people are consistently happier than younger people. Young people tend to feel emotions more intensely, but research has shown that old age is no excuse for being unhappy.

  • Money brings happiness.

    Countless studies have shown that there is no real correlation between money and happiness. After the basic needs of life are met, the addition of more money doesn’t necessarily result in more happiness. Further studies have shown that big windfalls of money can temporarily increase happiness, but there is no lasting effect.

  • Happiness is selfish.

    This misconception couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, focusing on your own happiness is one of the best things you can do for the people around you. If you are a happier person, your positive thinking will rub off on other people.

The Origins of Positive and Negative Thoughts

It’s important to avoid people who are angry or unhappy, but it’s also vital to understand where negative thoughts come from. If you’re aware of the cognitive distortions that produce negative thoughts, you stand a better chance of avoiding the negative thoughts of other people.
Some of the main cognitive distortions that lead to negative thoughts include:

  • Fallacies

    Negative thoughts can result from a number of fallacies. Some people externalize everything and blame other people for their own shortcomings. Other people internalize everything and take responsibility for the failures and emotional states of people around them. Another fallacy involves the expectation that everything in life should be fair. If something is perceived as being unfair, negative thinkers tend to dwell on that.

  • Personalization

    Many negative thinkers read too much into the words or actions of other people. This cognitive distortion can also lead negative thinkers to believe that they are the root cause of various bad situations that they had nothing to do with.

  • Polarized thinking

    Another big difference between positive and negative thoughts is that negative people tend to see everything in stark black and white. This type of thinking leaves no room for middle ground, so everything is either good or bad.

  • Filtering

    The biggest difference between happy and unhappy people is filtering. Negative thinkers tend to filter all the positive aspects out of any given situation. Positive thinkers, on the other hand, acknowledge the negative aspects in a situation without dwelling on them.

Happiness leads to good health, and you will be both happier and healthier if you can avoid negative thoughts and negative people. There’s nothing you can do about the way your mirror neurons function, but you can prevent emotional contagion by avoiding people who are always angry or unhappy.

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