Misery Loves Company… In Real Life or Online

a coffee mug featuring the face of Eeyore, the depressed donkey character from Winnie the Pooh
Image by Ben Babcock / CC BY

She’s holding her phone, scrolling through Facebook. She groans at something she sees. “Guess it’s time to snooze their posts for a while again.”

Snooze is a feature she uses a lot, allowing her not to see content from the person in question for 30 days. She’s found it extraordinarily useful ever since Facebook implemented it. Another middle ground between “Hide All Posts” and just sitting there, irritated, taking in whatever janky things she doesn’t want to see in her feed. She says that snooze comes in handy for those situations where you don’t want to unfriend or unfollow them permanently. But you need a break. Because they seem like they’re on a kick of posting stuff you’d rather not see, but you’re not sure they’re a lost cause or anything.

At least that’s where I could see using it myself. To be fair, I haven’t used it yet (these days I use social media more for business than personal reasons). And she uses it frequently.

She tells me she snoozes people when they are “up to some bullshit.” As we talk it out, it seems that this means that she uses the feature to shield herself from people who are being pointlessly negative.  True, there can be a place for criticism in life, but it always seems like criticism is most eagerly attempted by those who are bad at doing so constructively. Especially on Facebook.

So she’ll frequently run into friends passive-aggressively or aggressively venting to their followship about their conflicts with unnamed others who will likely never read the status. Ones in which, even by their own reporting, it sounds like her friend was just as trashy or mean to the person they were carping about (sometimes even more). Not in a way that’s dissolving tension but seems to be working them up even further (consistent with research, which finds that angrily ranting most often leads to more angry rants and aggressive behavior in the future and not less, but tricks us into thinking it’s a good thing while our brains get chemically addicted to rage).

And when she reads these angry rants, she starts to feel bad herself. About her friends. She becomes annoyed and pessimistic about humanity. Whether we’re all redeemable. Whether we can save us from ourselves.

There are only a couple of friends who bother her this way. Largely her friends post good stuff. But negativity bias makes the few obnoxious people difficult for her to ignore.

So she hits “snooze” to shield herself from the bad feels. And it seems to be an effective strategy, one that renders her feed a place where people are largely being constructive. The vast majority of people who make the cut snooze-wise still post negative things sometimes but not all the damn time. And when they do, they’re more constructive about it.

And her mood is notably better.

Emotional Contagion, Catching All the Feels

Most of us have heard of “catching feelings.” It’s a pretty common phrase — although people typically use it to talk about romantic attachment. If you’re dating someone new and you catch feelings, it usually means that you fell in love with them without meaning to. And it can depend on the specific speaker, but I’ve found a lot of people who definitely intend the “disease” connotation. That they view love as some kind of inconvenience, a mild sickness, or at least a form of madness. One that drives them to have different, possibly unrealistic expectations of another person.

I see the phrase “catching feelings” most frequently used in the following context: They wanted to keep a dating situation low key or casual, but they caught feelings.

That kind of thing.

And it’s a good phrase, a handy one. It’s not just a fun expression — you really can catch feelings. However, in other ways, it’s kind of a shame that the expression “catching feelings” has come to mean this one, very specific thing by default. Because the truth is that you can catch any feeling, really. Not just infatuation but joy, sadness, anger, etc.

Other people’s moods are contagious. Which is why they call this phenomenon “emotional contagion.”

There’s a huge body of research on it, how we so reliably can be affected by the moods around us and start to feel as others do. But it’s undeniable. And the old adage “misery loves company” is true. If you hang out with a person in a bad mood, it’s very likely you’ll risk ending up in a bad mood yourself (at least temporarily).

Well, you don’t even have to hang out with them. Not in real life anyway. Virtual exposure seems to be enough to demonstrate the same effects.

Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down… And My Friends, Too

In one interesting study (Coviello et al., 2014), researchers took to analyzing socially networked users, their moods, and the effect that negative moods had on people linked to them. Using statistical modeling (anyone interested in the methodology, should read the full study, which fleshes it out rather well), they determined the following:

  • There was a strong link between rainy weather (verified by meteorological records) and negative posts. On days that were rainy, there was a noticeable increase in negative content from users who lived in those cities as well as a simultaneous noticeable decrease in positive posts.
  • There was also a similar indirect effect observed whenever rain fell in those cities borne by people who were friends with them online but in a city where it wasn’t raining. The rainy weather effect had moved to individuals in cities where it wasn’t raining because of those online connections.

I like this study for two reasons. The first is that the modeling method they used is frankly pretty cool (and I really like math, particularly this form of math).

And the second is because it’s poetic in a way, in that the study design takes a common metaphor and makes it wonderfully literal. Cartoonists will often use a rain cloud over a character’s head to signify sadness. Eeyore’s resigned sigh of “oh bother” comes to mind.

It’s not hard to imagine that cloud growing and coming to encompass someone sitting next to them (and with virtual networks, that “sitting next to them” can happen hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away).

The Importance of a Snooze Button, in Real Life and Online Communities

This is not to say that we should treat people who are experiencing bad moods as though they are emotional lepers. “Get away from me, I don’t want to catch those bad feels!”

I frankly do see a large, important role to be played for those who are willing to support others and find providing that support gratifying. But I also think it’s important that such emotional labor is offered and done voluntarily. And also that if someone starts to experience burnout or depression that they’re able to take a step back and primarily care for themselves. Possibly even snoozing that dynamic if they have to.

Compassion fatigue is a real risk for people who end up in long-term caregiving roles, and while it certainly affects nurses, therapists, and other folks who work in the helping professions, it’s not just the bane of professional caregivers (something that will be explored later in this series).

For the sake of healthy social networks (whether that’s on social media, a family, a workplace, a kink community, or a polyamorous relationship system), it’s important that people have a snooze button that they can press if they need to.

Good Mood Are Also Contagious

It’s not all bad news, even in this one study. The researchers also found that good moods were contagious — and that phenomena that resulted reliably in people posting more positive content (holidays and weekends showed a strong positive effect) spread as well.

And good moods and positive content did seem to make a big impact and cause its own ripple effects. So spreading cheer online actually does seem capable of positively impacting social networks. Maybe there’s still rain some days, but even on those dark days, positive content can be a bit like that sunshine burning through the clouds.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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