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.