Often, creating internal distance can be most effective. "Instead of identifying with someone, take an intellectual perspective," Cacioppo says. "Step back and think about the reasons for that person's distress and the best ways to cope with it." If you come home to a grouchy partner, consider what could have caused it—maybe a flopped presentation or a lapsed deadline. Once you know the cause, you'll have a better idea of what you can do to help, whether it's leaving him alone for a few hours or making yourself available so he can vent. But if you're the type who succumbs to someone else's emotions, do so only temporarily. As doctors do with patients, empathize and then withdraw.
Contagion creates a roller coaster of emotion, but it also offers insight. Human beings are complex, and understanding someone else's feelings can be difficult. Without the innate ability to catch others' emotions, we'd be even more at sea. The trick is to strengthen your ability to withstand (or avoid) the black moods squalling your way and counter them with a smile worth catching.
Dorothy Foltz-Gray has written for Health and Organic Style magazines, among others.
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