A Contagious Smile

A Contagious Smile: Let's All Smile More Often!

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column is about how we mirror those we spend time with and how smiling is contagious.

Last week, as I was driving home from a Remembrance Day service, I saw a house with a Christmas tree proudly perched in the bay window. Christmas. In November.

My first instinct was to get grumpy. I hadn’t planned on thinking about Christmas until the slush hit and the malls became impenetrable. But then it occurred to me, if this family has their Christmas tree up this early, they must really love Christmas. They must be excited, and happy, and ready to spread the cheer. Perhaps we need more of those kinds of people.

A little excitement and happiness is awfully contagious. When I’m barreling into a store, and someone holds the door open, smiles and offers, “Have a great day!” it makes me smile, too.

This wouldn’t surprise psychologists, who know that our social interactions are largely influenced by “mirror neurons” in the brain. These neurons stimulate what the other person is feeling. If we see someone smiling, our mirror neurons will stimulate us towards happiness, and then we’ll smile back.

You’ve probably noticed this already when it comes to yawning. Yawning is actually the most contagious thing in the world, scientists say. Even the fact that you read the word “yawn” in this column is probably making you want to yawn. Many of you already have.

Smiling isn’t quite as contagious, but it is on the same plane. It seems that we humans are hard-wired for empathy, and so unconsciously we like to mimic those we’re with in order to produce a closer bond.

If we naturally mimic people, then, it’s probably best to hang out with people who are worth mimicking. Find positive people, not negative people. When I talk with someone for an hour or two about everything that’s wrong with everyone else, I leave that conversation rather critical. When I talk for an hour or two with someone who’s enthusiastic about life, I tend to pick up on their enthusiasm.

I know none of this is absolute. We are not automaton followers, and we can choose what to feel and not feel. But that takes a lot of mental effort. If much of what actually affects us is at the subconscious level, then if we want to be happy people, we should surround ourselves with happy people.

That friend who wears you down because she’s always complaining about her job, and her kids, and her man? Find a new friend. That relative who calls you to tell you everything that’s wrong with everyone else in the family? Get call display. And that movie that everyone says is great, but leaves you feeling like you need to take a shower afterwards? Find another hobby.

We need to watch who and what we let influence us. But what’s really interesting is that we can start that chain in motion ourselves. If we smile and say positive things, others will respond. Instead of participating in a “here’s all the ways men are useless” conversation, for instance, you could launch your own “here’s what I love about guys.” Or instead of joining the “here’s why society is going downhill”, you could start, “here’s what I really love about kids these days.” Maybe if we started noticing the positive, rather than the negative, we’d start a chain of gratitude.

If you happen to be one who puts the Christmas decorations up early, then, I promise to stop being grumpy and just to smile with you. You’re enthusiastic, and that’s contagious. And I’d so much rather people spread excitement than cynicism.

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  1. I agree! Smiles are contagious and so is enthusiasm! I’m another “What, Christmas already?” gal, but you’ve given me food for thought. I also always try to steer conversation in a more positive direction, but it isn’t always easy. Thanks for a great reminder to stay positive today.
    Interestingly, the one person who gets annoyed with me when I try to add a positive spin to a conversation is my husband. If he is complaining about something, I’ve learned to acknowledge his perception and feelings rather than always just counter it with a positive. He perceives it as me disagreeing or disregarding his feelings.
    workinprogress recently posted…Admitting the TruthMy Profile

    • Sandy in Los Angeles says:

      Yes, I get the same thing. He says I always take the other side. I have also learned to listen and acknowledge what he is saying and resit the desire to explain what the other party might have been thinking.

  2. One of the biggest things I learned when I was student teaching in college came from my supervising teacher. He told me that “Enthusiasm is contagious” and that if I wasn’t excited about what I was teaching (French), then my students wouldn’t be either. It really was true and I think I could say that even if every single student didn’t completely understand the content, the majority of them came away from my class liking French. That lesson has always stuck with me and carried over into parenting (well, and homeschooling too).
    Elizabeth@Warrior Wives recently posted…The Hobbit HousewifeMy Profile

  3. New to the blogging world… remaining anonymous for now, but LOVE this! i have realized in the past few years that there really are certain people that I just get depressed around. and then I am depressing and grouchy with the family-hubby especially… I make it a point not to ignore them, but neither do I try to hang out and be buddies with them any more…
    anonymous recently posted…what they don’t tell you about marriageMy Profile

  4. Love this perspective, Sheila! Thanks for a great reminder today.
    BeckyB recently posted…Flowers in the houseMy Profile

  5. I put my lights up when it’s still warm enough outside that I don’t freeze. Last year it was maybe a few days before Thanksgiving, they were calling for a big snow storm and the last thing I wanted to do was to be out in a blizard trying to hang lights. I had them all on timers, and I turned them on that night to make sure they would come on, all work, and the timers were set correctly. I had planned to turn the timers off after that night. Several of my neighbors got extermely hateful with me and slandered me all over facebook because I was “ungrateful” and couldn’t appreciate Thanksgiving. It hurt. It did snow four feet that night and I was still glad I had them all up early.

  6. I completely agree!! I’m an excitable, perky person by nature, and although I get some grief for being too cheerful, it really is fun to try and get grumpy folks to change their tune. Throughout university I worked as a waitress in a lovely family restaurant, and before each shift I would pray that God would put people at my tables that needed to have their day brightened a bit. I made it my goal that no matter how gruff they were when they first sat down, I would have them smiling on the way out. The Lord really impressed upon me that it was important not only to the people that I directly served, but also to everyone else who encountered that customer for the remainder of the day. :)

  7. I recently made the decision to stop being taken advantage of. Part of this is to stop being around those who take advantage of me and my kindness. As a result of this I’m spending more time around people who really appreciate me and make me feel good about myself. I am happier than I’ve been in a long time and even though it’s hard to tell those family members I won’t be coming over very often, it’s worth it!

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