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Moods are infectious: Warwick research could help tackle depression among young people

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New research run by Warwick University has suggested that both good and bad moods are infectious, and can therefore be ‘picked up’ from your friends or those within your friendship network.

The researchers hope that their findings can help inform public policy to better tackle depression among young people.

To conduct the study, a team of Warwick-led academics analysed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health on the moods and friendship networks of children in American schools. The findings suggested that moods spread over friendship groups.

Using mathematical modelling, the team found that having a greater number of friends who suffer from worse moods often relates to a higher probability of individuals experiencing low moods themselves. The opposite was also discovered when the focus was one those individuals who were closer to a more ‘positive social circle’.

Mood may spread from person to person via a process known as social contagion.
Rob Eyre, public health researcher

The data also found that various symptoms of depression, such as loss of interest or helplessness, also pass between friends, but that the effect of such of a lower mood in itself is not strong enough to push others into depression.

The research helped confirm that there is often more to depression that simply a low mood. It implied that following evidence-based advice for improving mood – such as sleeping well, managing stress, and exercising – can help both individuals and their friends.

Public health researcher Rob Eyre, who led the study, commented: “Evidence suggests mood may spread from person to person via a process known as social contagion.”

“Previous studies have found befriending to be beneficial to mood disorders in adolescents while recent experiments suggest that an individual’s emotional state can be affected by exposure to the emotional expressions of social contacts.”

Sub-threshold levels of depressive symptoms in adolescents is an issue of great current concern.
Frances Griffiths, Warwick Medical School

Warwick Medical School academic Frances Griffiths said: “The results found here can inform public health policy and the design of interventions against depression in adolescents.”

“Sub-threshold levels of depressive symptoms in adolescents is an issue of great current concern as they have been found to be very common, to cause a reduced quality of life and to lead to greater risk of depression later on in life than having no symptoms at all.”

“Understanding that these components of mood can spread socially suggests that while the primary target of social interventions should be to increase friendships because of its benefits in reducing of the risk of depression, a secondary aim could be to reduce spreading of negative mood.”

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