For the past 18 months, billions of people have been worried about the physical contagion of a deadly disease. As we catch glimpses of hope around the corner, one of our greatest challenges is emotional contagion.
Like germs, emotions are contagious—they can spread from one person to another. When it rains, your social media posts tend to be a little gloomier, and you’ll inadvertently send a cloud to one or two of your followers. If you see red when you watched a parent scream at a child, you’ve felt contagious anger. And if you doze off during a boring lecture, you’ve been the emotional victim of an energy vampire. “We’re the most common kind of vampire,” Colin Robinson divulges on What We Do in the Shadows. “Energy vampires drain people’s energy merely by talking to them.”
If your coworker is happy, research suggests that you won’t necessarily pick up an extra spring in your step. But if he’s burned out, you become more susceptible to it. When doctors and nurses are worn out, studies show it can drag their colleagues down too. When teachers are emotionally exhausted, their stress doesn’t just spread to their colleagues — their students end up with elevated stress hormone levels.
The bad news is that emotional pain can spread like a virus. The good news is that although it’s less contagious, pleasure can be transmitted too. Take happiness: there’s evidence that if a friend who lives under half a mile of you becomes happy, your odds of happiness go up by 42 percent.
As we started hibernating during COVID, we began to develop a form of herd immunity against contagious cheer. Even our favorite late-night talk show hosts weren’t as funny when they weren’t playing off the energy of a live audience. That’s why sitcoms like Friends had laugh tracks and live audiences. Some even hired “professional laughers” whose chuckles are delightful and infectious. (They’re the opposite of Janice’s machine-gun-fire laugh: could that BE any more annoying?)
In the spring of 2020, when it became clear that we weren’t escaping from COVID any time soon, I interviewed astronaut Scott Kelly on my TED podcast WorkLife. I wanted to know how he made it through 340 days in space, doing the extreme version of remote work and social distancing. He told me that he set a goal: to come back to Earth with the same energy and enthusiasm he had when he left. It gave him something to look forward to the following year. It also gave him a benchmark to make sure he was making time for moments of joy every day along the way.
What are you looking forward to doing once this pandemic is finally over? And how are you making time in your days to find and spread joy?