Do you have a friend who can always make you laugh, no matter what your mood? (I do – her name is Laurie). Do you have other friends or acquaintances that seem to bring the mood of a room down just by walking into it?
Psychologists have known for a long time that people tend to have their own emotional set-points. While we all experience mood changes from moment-to-moment and day-to-day, these changes seem to vary around an average or typical mood.
For instance, Alyssa might have good days and bad days, but overall she tends to be on the dour side, whereas Steve usually seems to be full of brightness and enthusiasm, even though stresses might dim his brightness from time to time.
This leads us to two terms relevant to emotions and moods:
States: Fluctuations in mood based on life events, stress, relationships – whatever you can think of that might impact a person’s mood in a given moment or on given day.
Traits: The average or typical levels of mood for a given person – the emotional set-point to which they tend to return when life upsets fade back into the noise.
But what about those friends who reliably change your mood? Could there be a social form of emotional traits?
Why Friends Matter
In a recent study, some researchers set out to determine whether people have reliable, predictable influences on the moods of those around them, something they labeled trait affective presence.
Cleverly, they studied business students who had to work on group projects together throughout a year of graduate level work. These students interacted often in a class setting and also socialized together frequently. They recorded their emotional states after interacting with these partners in a variety of settings, as well as filling out a variety of personality measures to assess their own emotional set-point.
As predicted, the results revealed that people do possess a trait affective presence – you could predict what a person’s mood would be based on the person with whom they were interacting. What was more surprising was the strength of the effect – in some cases, the trait affective presence of the partner was as important as the person’s own emotional set-point in determining their mood. That is, if you are interacting with Debbie Downer, your emotions are as affected by her trait affective presence as they are by your own average mood.
A double moral to this week’s story – choose your friends and life partners wisely, and also be conscious of the energy you are spreading around your social network.
Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., is professor of psychology in affective science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. To learn more about her research, please visit http://bit.ly/sarahrose.