Jacob Lund/ShutterstockDid you catch yourself smiling for no reason today? Thank your friends. Did you come home feeling bummed out? You can thank your friends for that, too. Confused? Don’t be. A recent study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science reveals that your mood is about as good as the company you keep—literally.
Thanks to previous research, it’s no secret by now that friends can be ridiculously healthy for us. But while other studies have examined friendships at just one specific point in time, this one measured fluctuations in mood over a period of one year. Using a survey of 2,194 junior-high and high school students, researchers employed a mathematical model to gauge the connection between individuals’ emotions and those of their friends’.
Students whose friends reported being in a bad mood were more likely to feel down, too, the researchers found. Plus, their emotions were less likely to have improved when the researchers checked in between six months to a year later. On the flip side, those who were surrounded by happy friends were more likely to report a mood boost across time. Some symptoms of depression, including helplessness, tiredness and loss of interest, behaved similarly among the students. Scientists call this phenomenon “social contagion.”
So, what’s the deal? According to lead author Robert Eyre, a doctoral student at the University of Warwick’s Center for Complexity Science, it’s simply a “normal empathetic response that we’re all familiar with, and something we recognize by common sense.” In other words, our friends’ emotions tend to rub off on us—the negative ones included.
Of course, empathy calls for us to feel a friend’s pain when they’re down in the dumps. But while you should keep an eye out for the signs you’re in a toxic friendship, you aren’t in any danger of becoming depressed yourself, researchers say. Observing how bad moods expand across friend groups can even yield important conclusions about our health.
“The good news from our work is that following the evidence-based advice for improving mood—like exercise, sleeping well and managing stress—can help your friends too,” Eyre said.
Feeling inspired to be a better friend? Here are 24 little things you can do, starting today.