It was 1962, the girls wouldn’t stop laughing and nobody knew why.
And even stranger, the laughter was spreading. Like a virus.
This was at an all-girls school in Kashasha, Tanzania. A few students had started laughing and they couldn’t stop. And this inexplicable behavior spread from girl to girl until 95 of the 159 students were affected. After 6 weeks the school had to close because of it. But that didn’t stop the laughter.
It had already spread to a neighboring village, Nshamba. 217 more girls afflicted. And then it spread to Bukoba, “infecting” 48 more girls.
All told this “outbreak” lasted 18 months, closed 14 schools, and affected over 1000 children.
Sound crazy? It’s true. While certainly uncommon, this kind of thing is not unheard of. During the Middle Ages there were outbreaks of “choreomania” – uncontrollable, infectious dancing that spread throughout Europe sometimes affecting tens of thousands of people at a time. And, no, I’m not making that up either.
Viruses aren’t the only things that spread through networks of people. Attitudes and behaviors do too. Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, has studied how this works. A network can perpetuate anything in it: not just fads, fashion, and trends, but happiness, unhappiness, kindness and cruelty can also spread like a disease. When I spoke to Nicholas, here’s what he told me:
We’ve shown that altruistic behavior ripples through networks and so does meanness. Networks will magnify whatever they are seeded with. They will magnify Ebola and fascism and unhappiness and violence, but also they will magnify love and altruism and happiness and information.
A happy friend increases the likelihood of you being happy by 9%. An unhappy friend means a 7% decrease. Yes, happiness is more contagious than unhappiness. It’s the scientific version of karma. With the effect spanning out three degrees, there’s a good chance making a small effort to make friends happier will flow back to you. Nicholas found that if a friend became happy in the past six months there’s a 45% chance your happiness will increase. Neat, huh?
Hold that thought, I’ve got a second story for you:
Julius Wagner-Jauregg won a Nobel Prize in 1927 for “pyrotherapy.” Other than having the coolest name in all of medicine, pyrotherapy would go on to save tens of thousands of lives. This was before antibiotics, when syphilis was a scourge. There was no cure for it. But there was a cure for malaria. Here’s the thing: the bacterium that causes syphilis really doesn’t like heat. Meanwhile, malaria causes high fevers. So Wagner-Jauregg deliberately infected syphilis patients with malaria. The high fever killed the syphilis. Then you treat the malaria. Patient recovers from both. Triple word score.
Clever stories. But what’s this all mean?
A network can spread a virus — but it can also spread happiness, help, gratitude and optimism.
You can use one infection to fight another. “Fight fire with fire.”
So what if we start our own “pandemic” and use it to fight the current one?
It’s just a metaphor but that’s okay; I recently had my poetic license renewed at the DMV. Look, I’m in no way suggesting that spreading happiness and kindness right now is magically going to kill COVID-19. And I do not want to make light of something so serious.
But we need to stay positive, optimistic and hopeful to keep fighting this. We need to help each other. We need to protect our health, but to do that we have to protect our mental health, our spirit and soul to stay resilient.
Our ancestors didn’t climb their way to the top of the food chain to have their spirits broken by a few rogue strands of debatably-alive RNA. We’re not giving up hope. Humanity is not just going to crawl back into the primordial slime and close the door behind us. We can’t let this get us down or tear us apart.
So let’s start our own pandemic of positive emotions to keep our spirits strong for the battle ahead. We’ll fight fire with fire. We’ll spread connection, help, gratitude and optimism. And we’ll win.
Ready to get infectious?
1) Spread Connection
70% of your happiness comes from your relationships with other people.
Contrary to the belief that happiness is hard to explain, or that it depends on having great wealth, researchers have identified the core factors in a happy life. The primary components are number of friends, closeness of friends, closeness of family, and relationships with co-workers and neighbors. Together these features explain about 70 percent of personal happiness. – Murray and Peacock 1996
But with social distancing, some of us now have zero people around us. (Even yours truly lives alone.) And extended time without social contact is bad. Very bad.
Even months after they were released, MRIs of prisoners of war in the former Yugoslavia showed the gravest neurological damage in those prisoners who had been locked in solitary confinement. “Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic head injury,” Gawande concludes.
Loneliness is the equivalent of being punched in the face. And that, dear reader, is not a metaphor.
Your stress response to both — the increase in your body’s cortisol level — is the same.
Feeling lonely, it turned out, caused your cortisol levels to absolutely soar—as much as some of the most disturbing things that can ever happen to you. Becoming acutely lonely, the experiment found, was as stressful as experiencing a physical attack. It’s worth repeating. Being deeply lonely seemed to cause as much stress as being punched by a stranger.
We may be quarantined and cut off from others to varying degrees, but this doesn’t mean we need to be lonely. Sound weird? It’s not. Stick with me.
Ever felt lonely in a crowd or lonely at a party? Yeah. The late John Cacioppo was the leading expert on loneliness. He said feeling lonely isn’t caused by the mere absence of people. We feel lonely because we’re not sharing with others, not connecting with them. That’s why you can be surrounded by people and still experience loneliness.
So reach out. Our new pandemic of positivity needs to spread that feeling of connection far and wide.
Send a text. Pick up the phone. Do a video call. Smoke signals and semaphore. Whatever. Just let people know you care and are thinking about them.
Have any of your relationships fallen dormant? Time for a reboot. Estranged from anyone? The force majeure clause has just been engaged. Reconnect.
You know how good it feels to be connected to others? Research does. It feels pretty close to an extra $76,856 a year:
So, an individual who only sees his or her friends or relatives less than once a month to never at all would require around an extra £63,000 a year to be just as satisfied with life as an individual who sees his or her friends or relatives on most days.
Reach out and tell people you’re thinking of them. We have the most powerful communication tools ever known to man at our fingertips, for free, 24/7. COVID-19 needs face-to-face contact to spread. Our pandemic of positivity doesn’t.
We have the advantage.
(To learn more about how to make friends as an adult, click here.)
Just connecting with others is huge. But our pandemic can do more to “fight fire with fire” and mitigate that other one…
2) Spread Help
Ask people if they need anything. Others might need a little more than well-wishes right now.
Everybody should be doing this. Everybody. Yes, even selfish people. Because being a little selfless can actually be the best way to be selfish.
As University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, one of the leading experts on happiness, explains in his book, Flourish:
…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.
And what if you’re not only selfish but you’re also a narcissistic braggart? No problem at all. I encourage you to tell others about how much you’re helping and get credit for it. Yes, really.
When people see others helping, they’re more likely to help. Infect others with the altruistic spirit. Altruism is deeply wired into us as mammals. Even rats (yes, rats) believe in paying it forward.
From The Price of Altruism:
A recent study in rats showed that the more a rat benefits from the altruism of a stranger rat, the more he will later act benevolently towards stranger rats himself.
And on the flip side, if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it right now.
Most of us (well, the non-selfish, not narcissistic ones) never want to be a burden to others but research shows we vastly underestimate how willing others are to lend a hand:
A series of studies tested whether people underestimate the likelihood that others will comply with their direct requests for help. In the first 3 studies, people underestimated by as much as 50% the likelihood that others would agree to a direct request for help, across a range of requests occurring in both experimental and natural field settings.
Spread help. Spread word that you’re helping to encourage others to help. And ask for help where you need it. Keep the lines of communication flowing so that we can all be getting what we need right now.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
So what can we spread that makes us all happier — while also strengthening the bonds of a relationship?
3) Spread Gratitude
Gratitude is the undisputed heavyweight champ of happiness. What’s the research say? Can’t be more clear than this:
…the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.
I know, some are saying there is very little to be grateful for right now. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not but guess what?
Doesn’t matter. You don’t have to find anything. It’s the searching that counts, says UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb.
Via The Upward Spiral:
It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
Spread the gratitude. Sending a thank you text is an awesome way to make two people happy and spread our pandemic of positivity.
Harvard happiness researcher Shawn Achor has tested this — and it works. Here’s Shawn:
The simplest thing you can do is a two-minute email praising or thanking one person that you know. We’ve done this at Facebook, at US Foods, we’ve done this at Microsoft. We had them write a two-minute email praising or thanking one person they know, and a different person each day for 21 days in a row. That’s it. What we find is this dramatically increases their social connection which is the greatest predictor of happiness we have in organizations.
And don’t forget about the people you might be quarantined with. Right now some of us are participating in a 24/7 involuntary reality show with our spouses that can put a strain on any partnership.
So don’t forget to show them some gratitude too. Research by Eli Finkel at Northwestern shows when even just one of you feels gratitude, both of you are more satisfied with the relationship. How’s that for a bargain?
I know, people often mumble a perfunctory “thanks” and it doesn’t mean much, right? True. That’s why it’s important to dig deep and really feel grateful for what your spouse or partner has done.
Research shows it’s not the words that count — it really is that feeling:
…results indicate that one’s felt and expressed gratitude both significantly relate to one’s own marital satisfaction. Cross-partner analyses indicate that the individual’s felt gratitude also predicts the spouse’s satisfaction, whereas surprisingly his or her expressed gratitude does not.
(To learn how to use gratitude to make yourself happier, click here.)
What can we spread that not only makes us all happier but increases grit and even makes us luckier?
4) Spread Optimism
Research shows being optimistic increases happiness, health, resilience and even luck. (Yes, luck — because optimism boosts openness which leads to new opportunities that don’t happen when you say no to everything.)
Some will say there’s a danger in being overly optimistic, that we could go full pollyanna and not take problems seriously. And you know what? They’re right. We need to be careful with optimism so that we don’t neglect serious concerns. Penn professor Martin Seligman has a method to help you strike the balance:
Whenever you’re unsure if optimism is the right way to handle something ask yourself: “What’s the cost of being wrong here?”
Via Learned Optimism:
The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. The pilot in the cockpit deciding whether to de-ice the plane one more time, the partygoer deciding whether to drive home after drinking, the frustrated spouse deciding whether to start an affair that, should it come to light, would break up the marriage should not use optimism. Here the costs of failure are, respectively, death, an auto accident, and a divorce. Using techniques that minimize those costs is inappropriate. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, use optimism.
For instance, if you’re having serious illness symptoms, don’t be optimistic that they’ll clear up on their own and avoid medical care. But if the cost of being wrong is just a minor feeling of disappointment that things didn’t go your way, right now it’s better to stay positive.
And spread that positivity. The resilience-boosting effects of optimism are so strong the US military implemented a plan to teach optimistic thinking to soldiers. And we could all use a little extra resilience right now.
What’s the best way to keep others’ spirits high? Make’em laugh. Humor provides a powerful buffer against stress and fear.
“Humor is about playing with ideas and concepts,” said Martin, who teaches at the University of Western Ontario. “So whenever we see something as funny; we’re looking at it from a different perspective. When people are trapped in a stressful situation and feeling overwhelmed, they’re stuck in one way of thinking: ‘This is terrible. I’ve got to get out of here.’ But if you can take a humorous perspective, then by definition you’re looking at it differently — you’re breaking out of that rigid mind-set.”
Right now hugs aren’t an option so send laughs. What’s that inside joke or funny memory that never fails to make you and your friend laugh? Send a text reminding them about it.
Your friends will appreciate it. Smiling gives the brain as much pleasure as 2000 bars of chocolate.
Abundant research on facial feedback shows that smiling feels great. A group of researchers in the UK working with Hewlett-Packard Development Company, tried to quantify and make sense of what all this brain activity meant. They used an electromagnetic brain scan machine and heart rate monitor to establish “mood-boosting values” for various brain stimuli…
Depending on whose smile you see, the researchers found that one smile can be as pleasurable and stimulating as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate!
Happiness, health, resilience and luck are all much needed right now. So spread the optimism. This is part of your new “happiness hygiene” protocol. And then go wash your hands. Yes, again.
(To learn how to be more optimistic, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it up. And we’ll also learn what science says is the question that best predicts whether you will be alive and happy at age 80…
This is how we can start a pandemic of positivity:
- Spread Connection: Just let people know you’re thinking of them and they are meaningful to you.
- Spread Help: Offer help where you can and ask for it if you need it.
- Spread Gratitude: Say thanks. And really feel it.
- Spread Optimism: If the cost of being wrong is low, let yourself believe things will turn out right.
So what does Penn professor Martin Seligman say is the magic question that best predicts if you’ll be alive and happy at age 80?
“Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”
If your answer is yes, you will likely live longer than someone whose answer is no. For George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who discovered this fact, the master strength is the capacity to be loved.
Our relationships to other people are often the key to our survival and happiness. That’s something we need to remember right now.
And it’s an idea we need to spread.
So from me to you:
I hope you’re doing well right now.
I hope this blog post has helped you.
Thank you for reading this.
And I really do believe things are going to be better soon.
And with those 4 sentences, hopefully I have spread connection, help, gratitude and optimism to you.
I am proud to be Patient Zero in our new pandemic of positivity.
Now go spread good feelings to the people that you love. We all need them right now.
This article originally appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.