The Theology of Everyday Life: The Theology of Humor, Part 4, "Emotional Contagion"

This will be the last post in this little humor series. And actually today I want to talk more about smiling than humor, but the point applies to humor.

Today I want to talk about emotional contagion.

Emotional contagion refers to the phenomena where a mood can "infect" a group. That is, good or gloomy moods spreading among people conversing with each other. The first question is: Can this happen? Are our moods "infectious"? And, if so, how does this happen?

Both the reality and mechanism of emotional contagion rests on two psychological facts. First, psychologists have learned that our facial expressions affect our mood. This seems backwards. Typically we think that our moods affect our faces. When sad, we frown. When happy, we smile. But the link does go both ways. If you sit and make a sad face for a prolonged time you will experience both emotional and physiological changes. In short, you'll start to feel sad. If you make yourself smile for a prolonged time you'll experience a lift in mood. Let's be clear that this isn't a dramatic effect. It's a subtle one, but it is a demonstrable effect.

(For those wanting to try this experiment, here's how to make a really good "sad face." Actors are trained on how to do this but some of us might need some more detailed "direction." This is is adapted from Paul Ekman's book Emotions Revealed:

1. Drop mouth open.
2. Pull corners of you lips down.
3. While holding these corners down, try to raise your cheeks, as if you were squinting.
4. Gaze downward and let you upper eyelids drop.
5. If you can (not everyone can), try to raise the inner corners of you eyebrows.

Make and hold this face for some moments. As you do, you'll notice your mood being affected.)

Okay, so we have the first part of the emotional contagion mechanism:

1. Facial expressions affect mood.

The second piece of the puzzle comes from the fact that humans mimic. Particularly facial expressions. Again, this has been demonstrated in laboratory studies. That is, if you smile at people they will tend to mimic and smile back. If you frown they will tend to frown back. And, relevant to humor, if you laugh they tend to laugh back. In short, smiles and frowns and laughs are all "contagious."

But the effect is even more powerful. To see this we can examine the two things we have learned:

1. Facial expressions affect mood.
2. Facial expressions are mimicked.

Taken together, these two psychological features imply both the reality and mechanism of emotional contagion. Here's how it would work. You go into a room, say, with everyone in a neutral mood. You enter smiling and laughing. Soon, due to sheer mimicry, others reflexively smile back at you or even add a small chuckle. And this affects their mood. As their mood changes their smiles and laughter come more easily and frequently affecting others around them. As the good mood spreads other are "infected." After a time, the mood of the room has lifted. All because of you!

Again, these effects are subtle, but they are real and have been demonstrated in the lab. And I bet your experience bears this out. Frowning people bring you down and smiling people tend to lift your mood.

What does all this have to do with theology and spirituality? Well, lots of things. First, I've spoken here about the idea of welcome being a critical Kingdom witness. I mentioned in that post how our physical presence can signal welcome or "don't bother me." And the research on emotional contagion goes to sharpen this point. Second, there is some research (the famous "Cookies and Kindness" study) that has demonstrated a link between altruism and good mood. In short, a good mood predicts more altruistic acts.

So, interestingly, smiling at people, allowing good mood to spread, is actually making the world a better place.

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3 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: The Theology of Humor, Part 4, "Emotional Contagion"”

  1. showing the teeth goes deeper than the smile is a defence....and according to some attack..of sorts.......................but...

    that would parlay us being akin to animals....

    can you imagine that my fellow ....animals????

    who ever heard of such a thing...

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