Covid is contagious. We are hearing about it a lot in the news and have seen the daily implications this has for our lives. In fact, you may be feeling the monotony of hearing the same information over and over. We all know to wear our masks, practice social distancing and good hand hygiene all so we protect ourselves from this coronavirus because we certainly do not want to catch this contagious illness. But not all contagious things are created equal. Some believe happiness and other emotions are contagious.
About a week ago I was feeling like things were so monotonous. Every day we do the same thing around here. At my house we get up, have breakfast and go on a walk in the morning. Getting my body moving feels good. I enjoy the alone time I get with my boys and the chance to prioritize my health. It has been great for our relationship, has helped us establish a routine for the morning and the boys look forward to it. Despite all of that it had started to feel like a burden. I needed some kind of break or way to make my everyday routine a little more exciting and fun. What started out as a fun way to connect and was helpful at first didn’t take long to become sort of blah. I’m also seeing this a lot with my patients. Everyone has some piece of frustration or difficulty in this transition to a contagious world. When I was reflecting on this one day I realized I hadn’t been able to do some of the things which bring me joy. The biggest piece I have been missing is connection with others.
The connection piece led me to think about how I could connect with others safely. I was troubleshooting this problem with my mom and she had the perfect idea. We would chalk happy faces all around my neighborhood. We each grabbed some chalk and randomly drew different sized and colored happy faces on the sidewalk. We had a great time with it. Some had hair, others had noses or teeth or freckles. When we had completed our adventure I noticed that I was feeling a little lighter. The walk which had felt like a burden just the day before brought me joy. There was joy in connecting with my neighbors, even without talking to them.
My boys were so excited to participate in making smiley faces the next day. They woke up and immediately wanted to take the chalk outside. I could see how proud they were when they made their own happy faces. They were feeling joy just as I did the day before.
The happy faces were also a hit with the neighborhood children and the adults as well. The morning after the boys made their happy faces we went for a walk and found more chalk art in our neighborhood. Some of the other families drew butterflies, suns, flowers and their own happy face families in their driveways. We even had several families wave to us and thank us for the happy faces around the neighborhood, saying it helped them feel less alone and seeing the happy faces brought them joy.
Which brings us to happiness being contagious.
While the actual studies on this topic are mixed where we have some studies which say the happiness of members of a family are independent of the happiness of other members of a family and other studies which indicate that even facial expressions and body language can be contagious. This concept of emotions being contagious is conceptualized by a term called “emotional contagion.” There are several studies which support this idea in different ways. You’ve probably also experienced this in your daily life. When your spouse is feeling sad you may also experience some sadness. When your favorite TV character is laughing and dancing around you may smile and feel some of that joy. This phenomenon has a lot of implications for our lives. As infants we learn social cues by observing the world around us and practicing this sort of mimicking behavior. (If you are around an infant you can try to teach them to stick out their tongue, it is such a fun experience!) When mom is happy and feeling good, the child learns these cues well and are set up for the optimal emotional development. When a mother is feeling depressed, her cues may be off or she may not be giving cues of happiness for her child to mimic.
We have a lot of information about the developmental risks for a child when their mother or father experiences postpartum mental illness. Overall, we know treating maternal mental illness can help the mom, which in turn helps the rest of the family. When mom feels better, her happiness passes benefits on to the child in terms of emotional and speech development even years later.
Additionally, we can use this understanding to improve our social interactions. We can prioritize surrounding ourselves (socially distant for now) with people who are supportive and who bring us joy. When we are surrounded by their joy we can experience more joy too. Their happiness can contribute to our happiness.
So when we talk about contagious things, let’s not forget happiness is contagious too. I encourage you to see how this idea can impact you on a daily basis. Are you prioritizing your mental health? Are you surrounding yourself with supportive people? If you’re struggling right now, reach out to your friends who have an infectious laugh and spirit. If you’re already feeling good, use your happiness to infect others.