Science and the Bible both show the same thing: Emotions are contagious

Have you ever been around people who just make you feel better about life? They see the world as a generally quite jolly place and always seem to see the good things. At the same time there are those people who seem to leak negativity all over you. We’ve long known that we can be swayed by the emotional state of the people we’re around. The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament tells us “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.” Proverbs 22:24-25.

Except what science is now establishing is that in-person interaction and non-verbal cues are not needed for emotional states to be contagious. A study published in 2014 opens with the finding that “Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.” The study focused on Facebook and tested the extent to which people’s emotions were influenced by the negativity or positivity of their news feed. What they found was that being around people, overhearing them, knowing them or picking up on their body language and facial expressions is not the carrier of the contagion. The contagion was in the textual content alone.

So, if we are looking at social media and follow groups that contain negative news, views or tend to be argumentative, we are infected with the emotions that they carry – anger, fear, frustration, disappointment, triumphalism and schadenfreude (that is, taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune).

We may think that we are merely observers. We are not. Every single thing you are looking at on Facebook is influencing how you feel in the moment and the general form of you entire emotional landscape.

As Christians, we need to deal with this because “A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls” (Proverbs 25:28). A city without walls has no defences and is easily overrun. And Christians are supposed to rid ourselves  “of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (Colossians 3:8). These are opposite to the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

Sometimes these fruits can be relegated to the “nice Christian” bucket. I’ve seen them on enough book marks and tea-towels that they can fade into the inspirational meme background. But these are really serious. These are the fruits of a heart that is turned towards God.

Which comes first? A corrupted heart or a heart that becomes corrupted? I think its a bit of both. After the Fall, our hearts are automatically prone to evil, but we can, with conscious effort, and with God’s help, move our hearts. What this means is that we can also be moved away again. However, God did give us his word and wisdom to mold our wayward hearts back to him so that we can be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

How do we know if we are renewing? Apart from the fact that we can have confident assurance that God is working in us, we know it by our actions: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (James 3:9-12).

If how we speak on Facebook reflects the negativity of what we are seeing, we are producing bitter water. And you can be sure that the bitter water is filling you, and flowing out to others from you.

So what to do? You can break up with your phone and Facebook and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Here’s a great review of a very useful book about forming a healthy relationship with your phone.

On the other hand, remember that the emotional contagion works both ways – it can make joy contagious too. So, maybe its time for some Facebook triage. As you scroll through Facebook, notice how it makes you feel. If it starts to make you feel anxious, angry or envious, maybe you should unfollow that page or group. Remember, we should be fleeing from sin. We actually have to wrench ourselves away from it. So cut it off. Hit the Unfollow button.

Then start filling your news feed with positive things. I noticed a while ago that I had a lot of negative memes and stories filling my feed so I started following groups about nature, travel and history. Now, when I take some time for some mindless scrolling, what I’m taking in, is a litany of beautiful views and interesting facts about places I love. When this is mixed in with daily Bible verses and Christian articles, I find my feed is a very positive place to go.

Remember “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Test your news feed against this criteria. If it doesn’t meet it, unfollow it and replace it with something that does!

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