What Contagion Are You Spreading?

To keep from spreading diseases, we’ve been taught to cover our mouths when sneezing, wash our hands often, and to take precautions while in the presence of people who are ill. These actions are instrumental in lowering the risk of bodily infection from communicable illnesses.

However, many of us are exposed to something for which we are unaware. We are at risk of being infected by it on a daily basis, yet we seldom notice its virulence. As you’ve probably guessed, I am not referring to a bacterium or virus – though its degree of contagion is just as noxious. I am talking about the mental and emotional contagion that occurs from negative thoughts and attitudes.

In the same way that being around positive people tends to bring out the positivity within us, negative thoughts and attitudes tend to spread negativity. Not only does this negativity spread to others, but it perpetuates negativity within us.


Thoughts are very powerful. We can condition our minds to a standard of living based on the repetitive nature of our thoughts. If we repeatedly think in a certain way, our minds begin to accept that mode of thought as a standard. This means that our minds will automatically default the standard we’ve established, which directly influences our perceptions of the world and the manner in which we face problems.

One way this occurs is through altered expectations. Expectancy is the belief that a certain effort will result in a certain outcome. This expectation determines our outlook and degree of effort for a given activity. If we believe that our effort will provide a positive outcome, we will work harder and more positively toward it. But if we expect that our efforts will have little to no effect, then we won’t feel so positive about extending an effort.

Expectancy is shaped by our perceptions. So, if we experience an undesirable outcome, and perceive it as something negative, then we increase the probability for making a negative association between the effort and outcome within our minds. Once we make this association, it can condition our minds to expect negative future outcomes. Therefore, if we allow ourselves to develop negative thoughts regarding failures and disappointments, we can end up reinforcing negative expectations.

Thoughts also tend to become self-fulfilling. For example, if we have the thought, “nothing good ever happens to me,” then nothing good ever will. Why? Because even if something good happens in reality, we won’t be able to truly value its significance because we’ve programmed our thinking to expect and accept negative things as a standard. When we have a negative standard, we tend to diminish the good, and amplify the bad. In other words, whatever the mind expects, it finds. Negative thinking can also create a closed mind. When we become stuck in the loop of self-perpetuating negativity, it is hard to break this pattern.  Consequently, new perspectives and opportunities are often ignored.

Another consequence of negative thoughts is that they can extend the effects of current situations beyond the present, causing us to envision a pessimistic future – which predisposes us to depression. According to Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology and author of Learned Optimism, “The projection of present despair into the future causes hopelessness.” So, essentially, we infect our future.

In addition to depression, negative thoughts can also trigger unnecessary anxiety and stress which, if prolonged, can wreak havoc on our bodies. So, not only do negative thoughts infect us mentally, they can infect us physically as well.

Environmental Contagion

When you consider the concept of human interconnectedness, it becomes obvious that none of us exist in a vacuum. We interact with and affect our environments, especially the people around us. Therefore, we must always be aware that both positive and negative modes of thinking are contagious, and that we can infect the people around us whether or not we intend to do so.

Negative thoughts foster a negative attitude, which can infect the environment of others. In the article, Fertile Soil, I discussed the role our relationships play within our growth environment. In general, for flourishing, I suggested that negative people (weeds) should be avoided if we find that they are affecting our growth. Given the focus of this article, however, we have to consider the flip side of that suggestion by asking this important question: Do you wish to be a weed within the environment of others?

While negative attitudes repel, positive attitudes attract, mostly because they foster a positive outward presence. Not only is it attractive to others, positive thinking makes us more receptive to our environments, creating positive interactions which attract opportunities. Additionally, a positive mindset is more able than a negative mindset to recognize and accept growth opportunities when they present themselves.

A positive mind focuses on thoughts that are conductive to growth. It breeds an optimistic attitude that anticipates favorable results and expects general positivity. There is no doubt that people with positive attitudes are more pleasant to be around, and it is very common to observe the effects of their positivity on others.

Choosing Which Virus to Spread

In summary, we in infect others with our thoughts (positive or negative) whether or not we intend to do so. And in the same manner that we infect our environments, we infect ourselves; the quality of our thoughts influences our attitudes and expectations which, in turn, influences our behaviors.

The logic is straightforward: Negative thoughts breed negativity, and positive thoughts breed positivity. Therefore, whether we exert a positive or negative influence truly boils down to deciding which contagion we wish to incubate.

“Attitudes are contagious. Are yours worth catching?”
~Dennis and Wendy Mannering~

Personal Reflections:
  • Have you ever experienced contagious negativity?
  • Was it due to your own thinking, or to the negative attitudes of others?
*Image: James Thew

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