Is Your Partner’s Unhappiness Contagious?

3 min read

Our emotions tend to mirror the emotions of the people around us. In a highly-discussed 2014 study, researchers at Facebook found that when users were presented with more positive posts on their timelines, their own posts became more positive in the future. Similarly, when users were presented with more negativity, they started to express the same negative emotions in their own language. This pattern of behavior is called emotional contagion (Kramer et al., 2014).

A new paper by professors Olga Stavrova and Bill Chopik examines whether emotional contagion also takes place in romantic relationships (Stavrova & Chopik, in press). The researchers conducted two studies where they examined what happens in relationships when one partner is happier (more generally satisfied with their life) than the other. They tested whether partners who initially started off more happy became less positive over time, and whether partners who started off less happy became more happy over time.

In other words, they asked whether having a happy (or unhappy) partner will rub off on you.

Fragile Happiness

In their first study, Stavrova and Chopik found that couples started out with moderate differences in general happiness. The average difference between partners was about one point on a 10-point scale.

But over time, these differences in happiness between partners decreased significantly, primarily because the happier partners became less satisfied over time. However, there was no evidence that the less happy partners were becoming more satisfied as time went on. They found evidence that only negative emotions spread between partners.

In a second study, Stavrova and Chopik tested whether the same results occurred for changes in other outcomes related to satisfaction, focusing on changes in positive emotions, negative emotions, and self-esteem over time. Confirming the results of their first study, happier partners reported worse outcomes over time. As years went on, they experienced fewer positive emotions, more negative emotions, and lower self-esteem; and there was little-to-no evidence that worse-feeling partners felt better as time went on.

Is Bad Stronger Than Good?

The results from Stavrova and Chopik’s studies are consistent with the idea of emotional contagion. Our own emotions are shaped by the emotions of those around us.

But why did they only observe an effect for negative emotions? Why didn’t less happy partners become more positive over time?

One possible explanation is that people are generally more sensitive to negative experiences than positive experiences. To quote the title of a 2001 paper, “Bad is Stronger Than Good” (Baumeister et al., 2001). For example, for many people, the pain of losing $5 is greater than the pleasure of gaining $5. Arguably, this means that interacting with a negative person should have a stronger impact on our own well-being than interacting with a positive person.

Death By a Thousand Cuts

The present studies illustrate how everyday experiences shape well-being; it would be interesting to know if similar contagion effects can occur in work or family relationships.

But it’s also worth noting that the effects observed in the present studies occurred gradually, over the course of many years. It took about 16 years for happier partners to drop one point in their life satisfaction ratings (which were measured on a 10-point scale).

So even if we are more sensitive to negative emotions in our relationships, the effect doesn’t occur overnight. While some people might be discouraged to learn that being around a less happy person can make you less happy, a more optimistic interpretation is that changes in happiness are slow. Your own happiness is only likely to change on an extremely long time scale.

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