Grumpiness Is Contagious

Grumpy sounds better than synonyms like surly, peevish or ill-tempered.

I saw this t-shirt recently. Sometimes I wake up grumpy….but sometimes I let him sleep.

But is grumpy really harmless? Or is it an insidious and contagious viral mood destroyer? Okay, that was an overdramatic attempt to pull you into the blog but a story by writer Eric Adler in the Kansas City Star reports that a growing body of psychological research is bearing out the power one individual’s mood can have on others.

That’s right, my friends. Grumpy people really are contagious!

“It is one of the most robust phenomena I have ever seen,” said University of New Hampshire researcher Richard Saavedra. “And it’s all unconscious.”

Purdue University psychologists presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association. Janice Kelly and Jennifer Spoor took 43 pairs of undergraduates and asked them to complete a task. One was designated the leader, the other the subordinate. The leaders were shown movie clips, this time of the “choice” scene in “Sophie’s Choice” or a scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Bad moods ruled again, with negative proving much more contagious than positive. In The Journal of Applied Psychology, Saavedra and colleague Thomas Sy at California State University at Long Beach examined the effects of a leader’s mood on a group. The results were consistent. Research shows that being exposed to someone cheery makes you cheery, but not as much as being exposed to a spiritless grump makes you depressed.

So how do we avoid catching the grumpy virus?

“In general, the key is awareness,” said Sy of Cal State. “The most insidious aspect of a negative mood is that, often, it infects you unconsciously. If you realize, ‘This person is depressed. I’m catching his mood. That is why I’m depressed,’ you can manipulate it. You can control it.”

For Christians it is critical for the sake of the Gospel to build up immunity to the grumpy virus. Joe Aldrich, our pastor when we lived in Southern California many years ago, wrote these words.  “The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians–when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”

What a surprise that the owner’s manual recognized the contagious nature of emotions. The word joy appears in the NIV translation of the Bible over 200 times and joyful another 16 times. Quite a surprise for a world that has come to believe (because of us) the words of writer H. L. Mencken when he defined Evangelical Christianity as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. How did we as followers of Christ get that reputation? We didn’t learn it from our Father in Heaven. Just a sampling of verses on joy and being joyful would be good medicine when the first symptoms of grumpiness appear.

But may the righteous be glad
       and rejoice before God;
       may they be happy and joyful.   (Psalm 68)

…yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.  (Habakkuk 3:18)

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  (Romans 12:12)

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.   (1 Thessalonians 5:16)

Eric Adler finished his piece with this bit of encouragement. “Spirit-sapping Negative Nellies are powerful, yes. But research out of Stanford University and elsewhere also suggests that the moods of people who feel their emotions intensely — whatever they may be — are also highly contagious.”

We are all contagious – good or bad. Why not make a choice today to spread the virus of joy. I saw a church sign that said it pretty well.

If you have the joy of the Lord in your heart be sure to tell your face.