Other people are both the best and worst thing about life. 

Strong relationships are the greatest source of our happiness. We are social beings and a connection with other people is fundamental to our well-being. Other people can lift our spirits, make us laugh and support us when times are tough.

However, other people are also the greatest reason for our misery. Colleagues irritate us, friends disappoint us and partners betray us. The parent-child relationship, despite being the strongest human bond (or perhaps because of that) is often fraught with anger, guilt and resentment. 

We need to be aware of the impact other people have on our happiness, so that we can either cut those relationships or at least learn how to manage them better. Read on to find out which three types of people are most likely to be affecting your happiness. 

The Negative Ones

We can catch negative emotions like we catch a cold

It is well known amongst psychologists that, just like catching a cold from someone else, we can “catch” other people’s emotions. This is because we unconsciously mimic what other people do – without realising it, we smile, frown and move in the same way as others. These actions are not just physical, but actually change our subjective feelings.

This means that the people we spend time with have a powerful impact on our emotions. In fact, it’s not just the people we spend time with, but the people they spend time with. Studies have shown that an emotion can spread up to three degrees of separation. In a phenomenon known as the “ripple effect”, one person passes their emotion to another person, who passes to another and so on. This can be particularly prevalent in the workplace, where a “toxic” worker can quickly lead to discontent.

We don’t even need to be in someone’s physical presence to catch their emotions. One study found that the number of positive or negative Facebook posts a user saw influenced the content of that user’s future posts. “Virtual” contact with someone can have a very real impact on our feelings. (See my article The Addiction You Didn’t Know You Had for further insight into how social media impacts your happiness.)

Unfortunately, we are more likely to be affected by other people’s negative emotions than their positive emotions. A pessimist will bring us down much more than an optimist will bring us up. To avoid the harmful effect of negative people, we should do an inventory of the people we spend the most time with and consider how their emotions affect ours. (See my recent article Saying This One Word Will Make You Happier to consider how saying no to certain things, and certain people, can be beneficial). This isn’t to say we shouldn’t support friends when they are going through bad times, but that we should consider minimising contact with people who are perpetually negative.

Don’t walk away from negative people – run! – Mark Twain

The Controller

When we feel controlled, we cannot live freely

One of the main components of happiness is a feeling that we have control over our own lives. Therefore, feeling controlled by other people can make us very miserable. 

Most parents have clear ideas about how they want their children to behave, not only when the children are young, but when they grow up. Some parents want their children to follow the same path that they themselves followed, because it feels safe and familiar. Other parents want their children to fulfil dreams that they never achieved. Either way, many parents will, without realising it, put pressure on their children to live their lives a certain way

I met someone last year who felt that he had neglected his wife, his children and his health, resulting in a heart attack in his early forties, because he had felt so pressurised to run a business to keep his dad happy. Like all children (whether they are grown-up or not), he craved parental approval and ended up focusing more on making his dad happy than himself.

When it comes to romantic relationships, a major cause of disharmony is when one, or both, partners tries to control the other’s behaviour to an unreasonable extent. A person who tries to control their partner usually does so because they cannot recognise that someone else can have a different, yet valid, view of the world. They cannot see that their partner may have a different opinion about what is acceptable, fun, responsible or interesting. Instead of accepting the differences, they try endlessly to force their partner to see things their way. This constant attempt to control behaviour leads to disappointment and frustration for both partners.

When we feel controlled, we are not free to live our lives as we choose. We are forced to follow someone else’s dreams or personal rules, not our own, which leads only to unhappiness. The first step to managing a controller is to recognise that you feel controlled. Consider whether you feel pressure from anyone to live your life in a way that you wouldn’t choose yourself. Or whether you find yourself doing things that make you unhappy, just to seek approval from others. 

The second step to managing controllers is to gain enough confidence in yourself to trust your own decisions. You can listen to other people’s opinions and guidance, but you don’t have to follow what they say. It can be hugely liberating to remember that you, and you alone, have ultimate control over your life. 

Freedom is control in your own life – Willie Nelson

The Worrier

Worriers want the best for us, but they can hold us back with their fears

Worriers are loving and thoughtful. Our well-being is of paramount importance to them. However, they can still make us unhappy.

Worriers are most likely to be our parents or spouses, people who love us dearly and don’t want us to take any risks that might cause us to get hurt. However, though they are well-intentioned, these people are the biggest threat to our independence and our ambition. Their constant worrying and cautious words can prevent us from doing things that might actually make us happy.

We need to remember that worriers are primarily concerned with keeping us safe, they do not tend to think about our personal growth. They do not want us to do anything that might risk us being hurt, embarrassed or exhausted, even if that pain is temporary and we learn and grow as a result.

Worriers usually try to direct us towards the paths that they have followed and that they understand. A worrier might be a parent who tells their son or daughter not to take a solo backpacking trip round the world because the parent never travelled alone and so they are terrified of the unknown risks. Or a worrier might be a husband who warns his wife against setting up a new business venture because he himself has always valued job security above all else. 

Worriers can hold us back from fulfilling our potential and doing things that will ultimately make us happy. Most of us have our own internal fears and, hearing these concerns reiterated by people we are close to can give us more reasons not to take chances. Courage is fragile and worriers can destroy it all too easily.

We need to ensure that, when we have a decision to make, we are not being unduly influenced by other people’s fears. We need to learn to trust ourselves more. Nobody knows what will make us happy and fulfilled better than we do. 

How many souls have failed to soar because they were suffocated in a loved one’s worry? – Brendon Burchard

To sum up…

  • Other people are both the best and worst thing about life
  • Think carefully about how the people in your life affect your happiness
  • Avoid negative people as far as possible
  • Don’t allow someone else to have more control over your life than you do
  • Don’t let other people’s fears stop you from taking risks

I’d love to hear you thoughts. Do you have negative people, controllers and/or worriers in your life? How do they affect you?


  • Emma spent a year and a half travelling around the world to find out what makes people happy. She writes about her experiences on her blog ontheroadtohappiness.org.