an experiment: becoming a happiness contagion

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Recently, I’ve been running into tons of articles and books and other research that indicates that happiness is contagious. This isn’t news — I suspect we all knew this whenever we witness children laughing and a smile involuntarily creeps across our face — but there seems to be a lot of science behind this phenomena as well.

Like, for example, the Ritz Carlton Hotel’s 10/5 Way — apparently, as described by business consultant and author Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage, “the 10/5 Way involves just a few simple behavioral rules that all staff are trained to follow. If a guest walks by a Ritz employee within ten feet, the employee should make eye contact and smile. If that guest walks by within five feet, the employee should say, ‘Hello.’” Shawn actually encouraged one of his clients, a hospital system, to employ the 10/5 Way, and incredibly, the outcomes for the hospital improved: “the hospitals that franchised the 10/5 Way had a 5 percent increase on Press Ganey's Likelihood to Recommend score (which evaluates whether patients would send their friends to that hospital), a 2.1 percent increase in unique patient visits, and significant improvement in the medical practice provider scores.”

Or check out this even more incredible story, about an encounter between some dinner party guests and an armed robber — be sure to watch the video to the end, as psychologist Christopher J. Hopwood explains the science behind what happened at the dinner party, called noncomplementarity — responding in an unexpected way to prompt a positive response.

And then just last week, I listened to this recent story of noncomplementarity on NPR. Since it turns out that anger is also contagious, I found it especially intriguing that in this case, actor Patton Oswald created a contagion of caring and joy — and totally changed Michael Beatty’s life, despite the fact that Beatty had been aggressive towards Oswald.

Again, there’s science behind this — a decade ago, Harvard University released a study that suggested when a person becomes happy, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happy themselves. A spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance and for next-door neighbors, it's 34 percent. Incredible, right?

Now, to be clear, I’m not of the opinion that simply grinning at people will cure depression, anger or the ills of the world. But I do believe that if there is any way to help inoculate ourselves from the contagion of anger, and somehow become a contagion of happiness, that can’t hurt, right?

So. I’m taking all of this as a sign.

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Today is the first day of Lent, and while my practice of Lent is no longer the one of my former Catholic youth, I do love the season as a reminder to start a practice for good. So this season, I’m going to try to be a happiness contagion.

Again, this doesn’t mean that I’m going to be doggedly happy for Lent — I have no interest in suppressing any feelings that I legitimately have, and will continue to check in with myself with self-compassion. But what it does mean is that I’m going to do whatever I can to inoculate myself from negative, and spread happy as often as possible. You know, make some serious light. For the record, I already do quite a bit in the realm of self-care; however, it’s time to amp it up even more. And for me, here’s what it’s going to look like:

  1. Dress my joy. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I’ve been playing with intentionally dressing every day — something I’d fallen out of the habit of doing, especially since I began working from home about a decade ago. After taking Stasia Savasuk’s Style School (she’s amazing — I hope you didn’t miss The Make Light Episode where I featured her), I realized that I just feel more authentic, and powerful, and just happier when I wear colour and light. What’s interesting is that I’ve had some really strong and powerful positive feedback when I take the time to wear colour and light. So for the next 40 days, I’m going to go all-in with colour and light — minimizing my safe blacks and greys, and instead go nuts with colour. It makes me happy, and it seems to make people around me happy, as well.

  2. Surround myself with the aesthetics of joy. A couple of months ago, I shared my thoughts on the book Joyful — a book that provided lessons that have stayed with me since I wrote it. The author, Ingrid Fetell Lee, talks about the “aesthetics of joy” — energy, abundance, freedom, harmony, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, celebration and renewal — design elements which can affect our moods. “The power of the aesthetics of joy,” she says, “is that they speak directly to our unconscious minds, bringing out the best in us without our even being aware of it.” Now, while our house generally contains an abundance of the aesthetics of joy (on purpose), my office is still not feeling completely finished. Since I spend most of my days in that little room, it’s time for me to put a bit more intention in its design. (String lights — which embody energy, transcendence, magic and celebration — are already on order. Natch.)

  3. Curate what I see first thing in the morning. I’ve talked about social media diets before, and I’m generally really good about making sure that my morning is spent easing into my day. But not long ago, I was talking to a friend of mine, and she mentioned how she sets her news alerts so that only the most positive of news comes to her phone, at least at the beginning of the day. I love this idea, because it’s not about staying clueless to the difficult news of the world, but rather, about ensuring that the first news you read is positive. So it’s time to curate my phone alerts so that good news comes first.

  4. Go outside. One of the best parts of my coaching practice is how much I learn just by being around my clients. Case in point: Laura Conely, founder of Urban Paths, is a walking coach — a life and wellness coach whose sessions centre around a walk (isn’t that brilliant?). Every time we meet, I learn something more about walking — how it’s not only good for your physical health, but also your mental health, boosting feel-good hormones, gives you a shot of vitamin D, and so many other things completely unrelated to how you might look in a bikini (though possibly related to how you might *feel* in a bikini - or anything else, now that I think about it). So for the next 40 days, I’m going to walk outside every day for a minimum of 10 minutes, rain or shine (this might sound like a really easy thing to do, but in a town like Houston that is almost aggressively designed to discourage both public transportation and pedestrianism, this is actually a bit of a challenge). At the very least, my neighbours on my block are going to see a lot more of me.

  5. Engage in only positive social media. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I’m generally a pretty positive person online, but here’s a guilty admission: on my personal Facebook page (and sometimes on my Twitter feed), I’ve certainly been guilty of the occasional political rant (especially in the past couple of years). So for the next 40 days, I’ll only share positive stories online, no matter what.

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I’m not sure what I expect to be the result of this experiment — perhaps just that I’m happier. But hopefully there’s a ripple effect. I’ll let you know how it goes during the 40 days, likely mostly on my Instagram and Facebook feeds. And if you’d like to join me in any (or all!) of these, please let me know — I’d love if we could figure out a way to support each other in this experiment.