What a Contagious Smile Could Mean for Your Co-Workers’ Resilience

An illustration of two co-workers holding halves of a smile face together to make it complete

Authored by

NLI Staff
Enhancing positivity in the workplace helps promote resilience and productivity.

In the 1989 movie “Say Anything,” Lloyd Dobler asks, “How hard is it to just decide to be in a good mood, then be in a good mood?” For some of us, it may be much harder than it sounds. Not only are our dispositions influenced by our genes, mental health, and activities of the day, but they’re often picked up from the people around us.


And that can be a good thing since research shows having a positive outlook may actually help you become more resilient. In a 2022 study, researchers gave 210 nurses in Germany a series of surveys that asked about their perceived levels of stress and preferred coping strategies. Some nurses seemed naturally resilient: They hardly engaged in intentional coping mechanisms but still seemed able to maintain their energy and commitment to work. Others used combinations of different coping mechanisms, such as being social or avoiding problems. Those who used evasive coping — avoiding problems — were most vulnerable to stress, while those who used active coping, such as positive reframing, were better able to keep their cool and, thus, likely passed their positive moods on to others, too.


Indeed, in an earlier study, researchers asked adult participants to either smile, frown, or remain neutral while looking at images of other people smiling, frowning, or maintaining neutral expressions. When the expression they were asked to make matched that of the photos they were looking at, people responded faster, suggesting that it’s easier to match or mimic the moods they saw than to contradict them. Expanding on those findings, scientists determined in another study that people’s moods tend to calibrate in the direction of the moods of the people they interact with, and negative moods seemed to overpower positive ones.


So knowing that moods are contagious, what can we do to boost our co-workers’ moods? Consider taking a break for a walk and inviting some of your co-workers to join. Not only is physical activity helpful, but being social is one of the most effective ways to promote resilience. Or crack a joke or share a funny video. Humor in the workplace has a variety of benefits ranging from improved coping to better physical health, according to a 2012 meta-analysis.


Company leaders can also enhance positivity in the workplace by discouraging 24/7 responsiveness among their employees, freeing them to truly relax outside of work and return well-rested. They can also take steps to ensure the workplace is psychologically safe. That means creating space for employees to contribute their opinions and take risks without fear of retribution. Finally, managers can work toward cultivating a sense of belonging by emphasizing inclusion.


It may not be as easy as Lloyd Dobler makes it sound, but there are concrete steps that both employees and managers can take to help positive moods permeate the office, promoting not only joy but also resilience and productivity.

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