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Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain

Everyone's favorite A-list target, Robert Scoble, announced the unthinkable a few days ago: he will be moderating his comments. But what some people found far more disturbing was Robert's wish to make a change in his life that includes steering clear of "people who were deeply unhappy" and hanging around people who are happy. The harsh reaction he's gotten could be a lesson in scientific ingorance, because the neuroscience is behind him on this one.

Whether it's a good move is up to each person to decide, but I've done my best here to offer some facts. [Disclaimer: I'm not an authority on the brain! I have, however, spent the last 15 years doing research and applying it, both in my work and also because I have a serious brain disorder, and my brain knowledge could be a matter of life and death. Another disclaimer: I haven't spoken with Robert about this; I'm simply offering some science that supports the decision he may have made for entirely different reasons.]

A few things I'll try to explain in this post:

1) One of the most important recent neuroscience discoveries--"mirror neurons", and the role they play in a decision like Robert's

2) The heavily-researched social science phenomenon known as "emotional contagion"

3) Ignorance and misperceptions around the idea of "happy people"

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons have been referred to by scientists like V.S. Rmachandran as one of the most important neuroscientific breakthroughs of recent history. This Nova video is a great introduction, but here's the condensed version:

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of "mirror neurons" found in monkeys. It's what these neurons do that's amazing--they activate in the same way when you're watching someone else do something as they do when you're doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that...

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn't need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

"Choose your role models carefully."
"Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better."
"You're hanging out with the wrong crowd; they're a bad influence."
"Don't watch people doing it wrong... watch the experts!"

We've all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone--we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you'll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we've spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session--despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we're around is nearly irresistible.

When we're consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I'm not suggesting that we can't or should'nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don't want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations--where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror--we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around "happy people" and keeping his distance from "deeply unhappy" people, he's keeping his brain from making--over the long term--negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

"If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion."

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it's his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help--it's simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak's book:

"Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions," according to Stonsy. "If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior--resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage."

If you were around one or more people with a potentially harmful contagious disease, you would probably take steps to protect yourself in some way. And if you were the contagious one, you'd likely take steps to protect others until you were sure the chance of infecting someone else was gone.

But while we all have a lot of respect for physical biological contagions, we do NOT have much respect for physical emotional contagions. (I said "physical", because science has known for quite some time that "emotions" are not simply a fuzzy-feeling concept, but represent physical changes in the brain.)

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

"...social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measels or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice."

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on "mirror neurons" helps explain the underlying cause. But it's not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:
"When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines - social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology."

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven't experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven't felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we've watched it happen to someone we care about. We've noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We've all known at least one person who really did seem able to "light up the room with their smile," or another who could "kill the mood" without saying a word. We've all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren't able to articulate.

So, Robert's choice makes sense if he is concerned about the damaging effects of emotional contagion. But... that still leaves one big issue: is "catching" only positive emotions a Good Thing? Does this mean surrounding ourselves with "fake" goodness and avoiding the truth? Does surrounding ourselves with "happy people" mean we shut down critical thinking skills?

Happy People

The notion of "Happy People" was tossed around in the Robert-Lost-His-Mind posts as something ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. One blogger equated "happy people" with "vacuous". The idea seems to be that "happy people" implies those who are oblivious to the realities of life, in a fantasy of their own creation, and without the ability to think critically. The science, however, suggests just the opposite.

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain's fear system--one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure--when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there's no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn't pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes. Many neuroscientists (and half the US population) believes that it is exactly this fear != rational thought that best explains the outcome of the last US presidential election... but I digress.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

"Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people's ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. "

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

"Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol."

And while we're dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let's look at a couple more misperceptions:

"Happy people aren't critical."
"Happy people don't get angry."
"Happy people are obedient."
"Happy people can't be a disruptive force for change."

Hmmm... one of the world's leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe--with laughter--some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective...

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn't believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can't be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

"The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope."

And among the "happy people", there's Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

But then there's the argument that says "anger" is morally (and intellectually) superior to "happy". The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

"People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can't take things in stride, and they're particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake."

Of course it's still a myth that "happy people" don't get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there's a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there's this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation--"if you can't say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can't be authentic and honest." While that may be true, here's what the psychologists say:

"Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that "letting it rip" with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you're angry with) resolve the situation.

It's best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge."

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

"Be the change that you want to see in the world."

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.


Remember the flight attendant's advice... you must put on your own oxygen mask first.

[UPDATE: I had seen so many blog posts painting "happy" as equivalent to any-synonym-for-brainless, that I didn't really care who used which word--and word "vacuous" was just one more example of what's been said about Robert and the Happy People. But, the author of the post that first used that word was Shelley Powers, who feels this to be a very bad move on my part, so, I'd like to correct that the original post with the word "vacuous", and Shelley's response to my post here.]

Posted by Kathy on April 17, 2006 | Permalink


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Love this post Kathy. The number one Ben-tested, non scientific and totally experiential reason to hang out with happy people... it actually feels good!

Posted by: Ben Askins | Apr 17, 2006 11:38:40 PM

I loved this.

If you feel crappy when you eat or drink a particular thing then you should not eat or drink that thing.

Being with some people is energising. Being with others is draining. It doesn't seem harsh to me to pick from column B, say, the salads, instead of Column C, the fatty appetizers. And who we decide to spend time with has more impact on our lives that what we eat.

Posted by: Rich Gibson | Apr 18, 2006 12:25:03 AM

Hm... So are we going to start discriminate on the basis of happiness? Are we going to have separate buses for happy and for unhappy people? Will there be tests to determine if someone is actually unhappy (and perhaps should be treated)?

And of course: how can an unhappy person become happy if they're not allowed to hang out with happy people?

Sorry, Kathy -- I like most of your posts, but this one is just ridiculous, simplistic and short-sighted.

Posted by: Berislav Lopac | Apr 18, 2006 12:40:54 AM


Posted by: Michel Parisien | Apr 18, 2006 12:56:50 AM

I know what you mean. I myself have gone through a phase of listening to angry people. I guess this is only a problem if you're naturally angry.

Posted by: Michael | Apr 18, 2006 1:25:50 AM

Mr. Lopac seems a bit... unhappy. :)

But I feel his point of view, too.

I think... well, first, you have to want it. Scratch that, first you have to know and _feel_ in every fiber that there is a better way to live.

Once you realize this, you must decide to reach for that change. And I promise you, it's going to be you and you alone to start out with. And it will take time, and it will be very difficult.

And the hardest part of all I think is that there's no such thing as a "decision." Whether a decision to be happy or any other decision.

I decide to not eat french fries anymore! There! Done!


A decision isn't made once; it's made every time the decision made comes into question. So again, you must be stoic in your want.

Then comes life... throwing you the same baddies you attracted in the first place because you're so pissed off all the time. Well WTF?!

I dunno... still figuring it out myself.

But hey look it's the Internet! We have people like Kathy! *hugs!*

Posted by: Rabbit | Apr 18, 2006 2:24:42 AM

I'm wondering, what if you are a negative, unhappy or angry sort of person? Are you unchangeable? If you hang around with happy people hoping to get some of their buzz, will you just infect them with your malaise? Should we herd the malcontents into a ghetto & let 'em rot, lest their eeyore spirit take hold in the minds of the happy?

Maybe we're better off substituting the words mindful and unmindful in place of happy and unhappy? Everyone has their bad moments, their "Argh, it's 6AM, I'm freezing and you got me out of bed for *this*?!" times. The same person could, 5 minutes later, be laughing and joking. An unmindful person will let the hot flash of anger cloud their face, and instantly vent their feelings, where a mindful person would try to find reasons why things are not as expected or why they've been turned down etc, and return to a state of calm equilibrium without inflicting rage, rudeness or negativity on anyone.

Me, I tend to be an eeyore, but I'm *trying* to be mindful.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Apr 18, 2006 2:43:36 AM

I just wanted to say that this was truly one of the most well thought out, well written, and well delivered articles on us humans I've read in some time. You really have managed to cover so many important and insightful issues in one place.

As someone said earlier: WOW!

Posted by: Damian | Apr 18, 2006 2:50:52 AM

and the people who are constantly unhappy need help most fo the time. if those who are happy dont give them that support then who is left to. the unhappy ones. this is something that i do not agree with, we need a balance and being unhappy is natural as well as being happy, you cna not be happy all the itme, we would all go crazy!

Posted by: Gabrielle | Apr 18, 2006 3:06:10 AM

Remember: It's not necessarily right to be happy or wrong to be unhappy. It's OK to have a bad day and it's OK to have a good one, depending on your circumstances.

But the point of the human existence, the reason why we're all here is happiness. We're here to be happy - it's that simple. That's not my idea, you can ask Socrates or the Dalai Lama, they'll back me up on this.

And what Kathy rightly points out is that there exist some myths about happiness and happy people. My favourite myth is that all change comes from unhappy people. If people were happy all the time, nothing would ever change.

Experience shows that in reality, happy people have the energy and motivation to actually go out and change things, where unhappy people often end up stuck, merely complaining about it.

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Apr 18, 2006 3:23:21 AM

I think happy people are happy, myself included, not because we ignore the negative, but we choose to appreciate and truly experience the moments of simple joy around us, when they find us. Children naturally have this ability. They are able to feel happy down to their bones, and it lights up their face. I think this is one reason people in families are happier. Being around children reminds us that just being alive is joyful!

Posted by: Mary-Anne | Apr 18, 2006 4:21:11 AM

Dear Kathy,

I love this post and I think I am falling in love with you. I wish I could marry you.

Jokes aside...it was really an inspiring read. I love this last parting line though.

Remember the flight attendant's advice... you must put on your own oxygen mask first.

Posted by: Bizmonk MJ | Apr 18, 2006 4:57:18 AM


Nice post. Makes me happy :)

BTW, you have a spelling mistake.
It should be "Gandhi" instead of "Ghandi"

Posted by: Kalpesh | Apr 18, 2006 5:33:13 AM

Great advice from my favourite valley girl!!

Posted by: john | Apr 18, 2006 5:35:42 AM

Great post, Kathy. I've been starting to try to think along these lines myself. Controlling my environment is the same as controlling myself. It's a little bit scary to realize how easily we are influenced, but it works.

Another post I read recently along similar lines asks "Are resentments justified?"

Posted by: Eric Nehrlich | Apr 18, 2006 5:39:21 AM

When I said I wanted to hang around happy people, what I really meant was I wanted to hang around Kathy. What a great post!

Posted by: Robert Scoble | Apr 18, 2006 6:40:46 AM

Excellent article, it really rings true in my experience. I changed jobs last year and realized how different life could be when you hang out with positive, happy people. My days fly by and though my new assignments are more difficult, I feel more comfortable tackling them in a happier environment.

It only took one resentful, negative person on my last work team to really suck the energy out of the group. Pretty soon we all were paying way too much attention to each other and not focusing on moving forward.

It's good to be amongst the Happys!

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 18, 2006 7:41:28 AM

One thing that confuses me about this: suppose a happy person and an angry/unhappy person hang out together. Both emotions are infectious. What happens?

Do they switch places? Do they meet in the middle so that they both become more neutral? Does the stronger will dominate, so it depends on the people?

Posted by: Ian Schreiber | Apr 18, 2006 7:44:27 AM

I echo someone's comment above: I could marry you (and I'm not even gay). Your thoughts are the BEST out there. It's like being inside my own head --but with other thoughts and with references.

I've been weeding myself of these types of people - even yesterday, I made a decision about how I communicate with a toxic person.

Get me the HELL out of DC so I can be around more people like you (or you!) (Btw, Kathy, have you tried a "Ride and Tie" 1-horse-2-human trail relay race? www.rideandtie.org)

Keep writing - we'll keep reading.

Posted by: Lauren | Apr 18, 2006 8:02:28 AM

It seems to me that this way of living is a little narcissistic and self-serving. If I only spend time making happy people happier, sure I feel happy, but have I really done anything meaningful in the larger sense of existence? Or, by trying to bring happiness into the lives of those who've been hurt, violated, abused, oppressed, do I create a better world for all of us to live in?

Do I recognise that being with happy people is good and try to incorporate that into my life (just as I schedule in exercise, sleep, good food) - of course. But, if I really want my children and their children to have a good world to live in, then I can't ignore suffering.

Posted by: nursegirl | Apr 18, 2006 8:46:30 AM

It seems that the question of associating with "unhappy people" touches a nerve. "Shall we give them their own buses?" A pastor of a few hundred years ago wrote, "Don't spend much time with people where you neither receive good from them nor can do good to them." (And this is said in a context where "doing/receiving good" involves learning wisdom, patience, kindness, hope, and the like.)

If I and my good friends might conclude that time spent with someone is draining me--and this requires humility to admit--without apparent benefit to the other--and this requires discernment--then it might be wise to put my energies elsewhere, for my sake and for the other's.

Posted by: Ron Lusk | Apr 18, 2006 8:56:55 AM

One of the Stanford faculty lectures I've listened to (I think you can get them via iTunes music store - free) mentions that as people get older, they do more to maintain their own happiness -- paying more attention to positive emotions and less attention to negative emotions. Researchers tested this with various fake ads: older people remembered better the ads that had positive emotions associated with them, while younger people memories were not biased by the emotions in the ads.

And by the way, since there is a common idea that older people have poor memory, older people did poorly on memory tests that were labeled as such, but they did well on the SAME tests when they were labeled as "learning" tests.

All of this is important in the USA where the baby boomers, the largest age-segment of our society, are now in their retirement years.

(The next largest age-segment, the baby-boom "echo", is in the teen years now, but that's another story.)

Posted by: keith ray | Apr 18, 2006 9:08:44 AM

Re Lopac and Moran -
The advice of this article was what to do with your own life, NOT what some hypothetical "we" should do to hypothetical unhappy people (tests, buses, ghettos). And Kathy addressed the "5 minutes later ... laughing and joking" point: >>there's a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person<<

Choose your behavior for yourself, and don't sidestep this topic by pretending this means that you choose to do something TO someone else.

Posted by: anonymous somewhat happy coward | Apr 18, 2006 9:13:28 AM

I do not avoid unhappy people, nor should we. But, we need to make sure our interactions are not just with unhappy people. To accomplish this, sometimes we do need to seek out happy people.

I listen, and I sympathize with unhappy people, but I have also learned when to leave. I try to remind these people that they have choices. They can try to change the situation, or change the way they look at it. Change is not always easy, but the essence of life is learning and growth.

Happy people are not always happy. We also get angry, frustrated, and depressed, but, and this is important, we do not wallow in it. We try to handle the situation in a more positive, constructive way. We falter. We make mistakes. But, we try to let go of anger. We try to let go of bitterness. We try to forgive, first ourselves, then others.

Posted by: Mary-Anne | Apr 18, 2006 10:22:29 AM

i would much rather be angry than vapid

Posted by: fartikus | Apr 18, 2006 10:32:34 AM

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