ContagiousSmile - A Contagious Smile

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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