(Wellness Wednesday) A reflection on facebook psyhology experiment: Should we "cut out" negative friends?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I'm sure you've heard by now, and probably have already formed an opinion about facebook's actions in manipulating newsfeeds of many of its users in order to conduct a psychological experiment.  Specifically, facebook's aim was to see how users moods were affected by seeing more negative statuses or more positive statuses.  Putting the controversy aside for a moment, this study does contain some interesting information.  The study concluded that moods are "contagious," in a sense, that the more an individual was exposed to negative messages, the more likely the person was to express negative messages and vice versa.

This study seems to confirm the old adage that you should cut negative people out of your life in order to be happy.  Is that true?  Anecdotally, I think it is true that you gain your understanding of the world from your peers.  Are your friends all ambitious and climbing the corporate ladder?  Have you watched your friends adopt exercise routines or train and complete half-marathons?  Have you seem them easily make new friends?  I absolutely think that we are more likely to believe we can achieve things that we've seen modeled by our friends.  I know that that's at least true for me.  I have relatively ambitious and happy friends and I have seen that make me more ambitious and happy.

I have watched my friends go from little running ability to running half-marathons.  I have watched them successfully transition to new cities and make friends with ease.  I have watched them network and procure their dream jobs.  I can't say that I have done all of those things beautifully, but because I've seen it modeled, I've made more of an effort to take steps to achieve those things and have certainly been more successful than I otherwise would have been in achieving my various goals.

Happiness is also something that gets modeled to us.  When we see our friends react to things positively, or react to the world positively, we are more likely to react positively as well.  That seems like a good thing, but I think it's actually complicated.  Bear with me through an example.  Cancer is the perfect society-wide model for the complicated nature of this type of learning.  Scores of cancer-survivors will tell you that they feel an immense pressure to be the person who sails through treatment and responds to each piece of negative news with a smile and the will to fight on.  Or they respond to the news that they will die with a smile and peace.  And that's because we see the person who responded this way idealized and we have a model for that type of response.

Is this fair to cancer patients?  No way.  Is this healthy?  I really don't know.  I think it's ridiculous that when something that devastating is happening, in addition to the devastation that's occurring, there is pressure to respond perfectly.  I think it leads to this dichotomy where you do one thing for the outside world and another thing inside.  I've heard several cancer survivors say that support groups were the only place they could let down their guards and tell others how they were feeling.  At the same time, maybe this model does actually make you smile more and maybe you respond to things with a little bit more fight than you would have otherwise, and maybe this does help people actually get through treatment and beat the disease.  It's an open question.

Now, think more broadly.  The same complications are true in responding to any challenge.  Are there negative implications to modeling happy and positive responses of others to situations that actually feel horrible?  Yes.  Of course there are.  Okay, so that's fine with respect to yourself, but what about in selecting who you spend your time with?

The fact that there are complicated and difficult situations in the world makes me wonder about the advice that you should "cut out" negative people.  There's a lot of value in long-lasting friendships and relationships, so how do you weigh history against the possibility that you're more likely to model someone's negative behavior and be less happy in the short-term.  Is there a threshold where the person just becomes a negative person as opposed to a positive person, or a neutral person, responding to a difficult life situation negatively?

Sadly, I don't have any answers to these questions.  My best takeaways, which have "no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience" are:
1. Yes, when you surround yourself with positive people, you are more positive.  And when you're more positive and happy, those around you are also more likely to be positive and happy.  You will be happier if the people around you are happy.

2. Life isn't completely happy.  A lot of times our true responses to difficult things are very mixed.  And there are times where the default positive response isn't really the most genuine.  If you feel pre-programmed to respond to things positively, as I often do, you run the risk that you'll automatically project that response but feel totally isolated in your dealing with any of your fear, sadness, and negative responses.  People do genuinely want to know how you're feeling and if they feel like you're not letting them in, then that itself creates distance.  It's a balance.

3. Friendships are complicated.  People are complicated.  I don't think a blanket response of cutting out negative people is actually a recipe for happiness.  It may be something more along the lines of taking complications into account and determining, over the long-run, whether relationships give or drain your energy and whether this is likely to be so over the years.

So, no concrete answers here.  A caveat, though:  It's an entirely different equation when other people are negative about you or your prospects of achieving what you want.

Anyone else with thoughts on this?  I'd love to hear what you think.

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