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The House of Cards Effect

05/12/2015 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

Recently I was waiting on line at a coffee shop when a child fell into a full-on tantrum, complete with a perfectly executed flop-down pose.

You know the pose I'm talking about:

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The child's mother, her nose stuck in her iPhone, did nothing.

"What's wrong with her?" I thought. "Doesn't she know how annoying that is?"

I got my coffee and settled in to read my email. I was awaiting a message from a colleague who promised to get me some information I needed pronto. When I logged in, however, it wasn't there.

"Well that's rude," I thought. "I guess he doesn't care."

Later, as I walked out of the store, the guy in front of me tried to toss his empty cup into the trash. He missed, and kept right on walking.

I shook my head in disgust as my thoughts took over again. "Some people."

On my drive home I realized I was feeling -- well, icky. I reflected on my bad mood, on my pattern of cynicism and judgment of others. I tried to figure out if there was something new in my life that was contributing to it.

And that's when it hit me. The night before I'd binge-watched a few episodes of my newest TV-show obsession...

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...House of Cards.

For those who don't know the show, it's a political drama in D.C., filled with cunning characters who are all out to manipulate each other and get more power.

I think it's fair to say the show is a dark one.

Everyone distrusts each other. Everyone judges everyone else. Everyone gets awfully cynical about their fellow man.

Somehow, I realized, I'd let some of that dark stuff from the fictional world seep into my real world. I'd let it seep into my own mood, making me distrustful and judgmental and -- well -- cynical about my fellow man. (And woman, apparently.)

We're influenced in this way all the time...

  • We watch a movie about fighting and car chases, and wind up shaking our fist at the slow driver in front of us
  • We watch a show where everyone cheats on each other and we begin to distrust our partner
  • We read a book where the main character has a snarky take on the world, and we find that our own take on the world has grown...a bit snarky

While many of us have been warned to choose our non-fiction news programs carefully, about how they can impact our moods, fears and emotions... we often think the fictional world is a safe space.

And so we escape there, acting as passive players, sitting back as the lives of fictional people in their fictional worlds spin out of control.

The problem is that these fictional worlds -- when portrayed well -- draw us in so deeply that we can easily become just as influenced by their actions, attitudes and norms as we do in the real world. (Reality shows, which we also use as an escape, can do the same thing.)

It often happens without us realizing it. Which is part of the problem.

I'll tell you right now...I have no intention of quitting my newest TV-obsession. But I have created some strategies to fight what I call the "House of Cards Effect".

I thought you'd like to give them a whirl yourself...which is why I present them to you now:

#1: Know what's in the cards

Notice which shows, characters and authors can take a hold on you and your mood. Pay attention to your patterns and your energy...when you feel more cynical, doubtful, angry or sad.

Once you are aware, then you can adjust. Which leads to...

#2: Shuffle the cards

If there's a fictional world you love but you know that it's dark and can negatively impact your mood or actions, then make sure you watch, listen to or read something lighter afterwards to balance it out.

Or, better yet, call a non-fiction person who makes you happy and let them help lift you up.

#3: Fold the cards

If there's a fictional world that's just got too great of a negative hold on you, then consider taking a break from it. (This may also go for non-fiction as well. I myself quit watching my beloved Jon Stewart because his well-articulated points about U.S. politics always left me in despair.)

Following these strategies might not be easy, but they might just make your mood better.

That's what I found out, when I made sure I followed up yet another House of Cards episode with a different show...one that was guaranteed to get me to belly-laugh.

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This week...

Recognize your own House of Cards effect. Know which fictional escapes are messing with your mood.

Shuffle the cards for balance. Fold if necessary.

And know your real world will be better for it.

PS - special thanks to David Thompson for the great temper tantrum shot!