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What Social Distancing Can't Stop

By James & Suzie Pawelski

Prudence At Work

Avoiding danger in life has always been key to our physical survival. At this very moment, our threat alerts are at an all-time high. We are relying heavily on our strength of prudence and taking precautions to help keep us safe during this unprecedented time. Covering our mouths when we sneeze, washing our hands, and practicing other proven healthy habits is of paramount importance right now. Since none of us want to catch any germs, given the serious threat of the current coronavirus pandemic, these common-sense practices are essential to follow for our physical well-being.

We're In This Together

We realize, too, that our actions not only have an impact on ourselves but also on our friends, family, loved ones, and countless others throughout the world we've never met and probably never will. In the words of Dr. Christopher Peterson, creator of the VIA Survey of Character Strengths:

Other people matter.

Not surprisingly, we are highly focused on learning as much as possible about how to avoid catching anything right now, for our sake and the sake of so many others. We have a social responsibility to take action.

Are We Attending to Mental Well-Being?

However, we can’t stop there. If we want to strengthen our overall well-being we must pay attention to our entire selves. Not solely to our physical body but also to our emotional body.

What are we doing to avoid catching emotional germs as well as physical ones?

For example, have you ever noticed how after spending a lot of time with your spouse, friend, or colleague you often end up feeling the emotions they are experiencing? If so, hopefully, they were in a good mood.

Emotional contagion is a complex process that often takes place below the level of our consciousness. In brief, we evolved as social animals and were built to mimic each other. As infants, we began mimicking our parents soon after we were born. This behavior is essential for our growth and development and continues throughout our lives.

According to prolific psychologist Elaine Hatfield and colleagues, "Emotional contagion results from our tendency to copy or synchronize our facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and behaviors with those around us, and as a result take on their emotional landscape.”

It’s a great reminder for all of us to examine what we are catching and spreading to others, not only potential physical germs but emotional ones as well.

Are we catching and spreading unwarranted fear, anger, and anxiety?

Of course, it’s natural to feel stressed, in particular at this incredibly chaotic time. It’s healthy to respect and allow ourselves to feel what psychologists refer to as “negative emotions.” By no means are we saying we need to discount or suppress these emotions.

As we emphasize in our book, Happy Together, negative emotions play an important role in life. They provide us with a lot of information about the world and they have been crucial to our survival. Without fear, our ancestors would have never fled the saber-toothed tiger but instead would have become its dinner. And eventually extinct.

While negative emotions can indeed be our teachers, we think everyone would agree that we don’t want to cultivate more of them in our lives. They don’t need any help from us whatsoever. They seem to have no problem suddenly appearing in life and quickly spreading out of control. Especially at a time of such heightened sensitivity and uncertainty in the world.

Given their ability to rapidly multiply, what can we do to stop catching contagion and contaminating others?

Here are a few tips to avoid catching emotional germs:

  • Use social intelligence and create healthy boundaries with people who emotionally drain you; avoid “kill-joys.”
  • Stop dwelling on what you can’t change. Use perspective to step back and focus on what you can change.
  • Limit your time spent on social media and consuming negative news.

Just like we don’t want to pass on our physical germs to others, we need to stop spreading emotional toxicity as well. Sadly, we often don’t realize we are spewing negativity.

Here are some questions and tips to help you avoid spreading negativity:

  • How aware are you of your individual actions?
  • What steps are you taking now to avoid spreading emotional contagion? Maybe you’re washing your hands, but are you watching your mouth and attitude?
  • How clean are your thoughts and words? Perhaps you’re quickly reacting, rather than calmly responding to your spouse or child.
  • What is one thing you can do differently to stop spreading negativity?

Moving Forward with Positivity

Seek out the opinions of others in your social circle if you’re unsure of your behavior. Confide in your spouse or close friend about your concerns and ask for his/her opinion. We often don’t clearly see what we are projecting into the world.

In sum, we each have an enormous opportunity at this very moment to take specific actions now that will have a ripple effect on our larger community and the world. Let’s continue doing everything we can to stop catching and spreading physical, as well as emotional, contagion for the collective good.

Finally, it's also important to understand that eradicating negativity won’t automatically result in positivity. It’s something we will have to consciously cultivate and practice. The good news is that positive emotions are highly contagious as well.

In our next post, we discuss how we can all practice becoming positivity contagions. We're all in this together. Let's do our best to make the world better for all.


Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.T. & Rapson, R. L. (1993) Emotional contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Science2(3), 96-100.

Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.