It’s clear that we affect each other. We shape each other’s lives in big ways and small ways all the time, accidentally and on purpose. Our behaviors, our moods, what we believe, and what we say all exert powerful influences on the people, relationships, and situations around us. That’s obvious, right?
Still, it’s easy to take for granted. I don’t give it much thought most of the time, it’s just something going on in the background.
Usually, the only times I really think about it are when I’m annoyed by it. When I feel like someone is trying to manipulate me, or exerting unwelcome pressure to convince me of something. Or when I’m reminded of targeted advertisements, finagling political messages, and exploitative social media algorithms. It’s irksome. So the very idea of wielding influence over others oftentimes gets laden with this discomforting connotation of invasive power and mind-control.
Nobody enjoys feeling “worked” or “played” by someone else’s agenda. We like to think of ourselves as free-thinking people of choice and conscience and independent wisdom. And well we should be, insofar as we can.
For sure, we can practice mindfulness and self-possession. We can build up our critical-thinking muscles to avoid getting steered or stirred against our better judgment. Yet, no matter what we do, our minds and hearts don’t function in a vacuum. Our experiences of life and the decisions we make always are inextricably bound up in each other’s influence, like it or not.
We might as well like it. Because it works in both directions, in all directions, and we can participate intentionally.
Evolution has designed us for empathy, to seek belonging. This means that we are “under the influence” of relationship and community all the time. Studies have demonstrated that we tend to mimic and mirror each other’s postures, facial expressions, and behaviors, mostly unconsciously. The same happens with our emotions — how one person’s mood can lift up or pull down an entire room. Research also has shown that these same latent influences can and do affect our decisions and choices, even when we’re really trying to be conscious and objective about them. It’s just the way we’re made.
This is a blessing when it automatically fosters compassion and kindness. It’s freakin’ awful when it leads to clannishness or cultishness, or when it’s used against us to sell us something we don’t want or to inflame our basest instincts. Organizational theorists call the phenomenon “emotional contagion.”
Which sounds fairly icky. And indeed it can be. It’s important to remember, though, that positive emotions circulate, as well. We have to be a little more attentive to them, because alas evolution also stuck us with a bad-news bias. But it’s a fact that good news, good moods, and good cheer are also wildly infectious. We can push each other’s empathy buttons on purpose to spread enjoyment, laughter, camaraderie, harmony. And, in turn, our own joy buttons get pushed.
I’m reminded of Fred Rogers’s advice, which he attributed to his mom, to always look for the “helpers” when confronted with something sad or scary or disheartening. There are always helpers, always people doing good, even in the midst of bad circumstances. Mr. Rogers said to seek them out, and allow them to define the situation as much as possible. I don’t always remember to do this before getting upset, but I try — when reading the news, especially — to look for the helpers and let them influence how I see it all.
We’re all people of influence. Your smile sparks others’ smiles… which changes their mood…which affects the experience their friends and family are going to have later… which ripples ever outward in ways we can’t possibly fathom. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we’re changing the world, creating the world, like this with every single interaction.
So, thank you. Thank you for how you touch my life. How you make it better. How you remind me of all the beauty and grace and passion and strength flowing through this precious world. I’ve got some thoughts to share about laugh tracks and random acts of generosity this week. I hope to see you in person on Sunday, at 10:00am, at Maple Street Dance Space. As ever, my talk will be on the website (BOSQUECSL.ORG) by Sunday night. XO, Drew
©2022 Drew Groves