Kindness as a Contagion

April 4, 2019

From the most basic exchanges to the deepest conversations, kindness is a contagion of emotion that spreads through social networks more rapidly than the flu. Its impact can vary from fleeting to life changing, and sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Yale University has studied this phenomenon in depth. For example, his research shows that people who become happier in life, increase the odds of a nearby friend also becoming happier by 25 percent. In this scenario, a  spouse’s happiness potential increases by 8 percent, and the next-door neighbors will be lucky to see a 34 percent increase in odds.
 
"Everyday interactions we have with other people are definitely contagious, in terms of happiness," says Christakis in regard to his findings, which were studied by mapping 5,000 people in one town for more than 20 years. Christakis explains, "We were able to show that as one person became happy or sad, it rippled through the network." Similar, albeit less uplifting, research finds that other emotions, such as sadness, are equally contagious.
 
Contagion via Social Media
Direct interaction with a person is one thing, but do our moods affect larger social networks outside of in-person interactions as easily? In a nutshell, yes. A massive experiment with 700,000 Facebook users demonstrated that emotional states are quickly transferred to others without other people even realizing a change in their moods. Another study, with data from millions of Facebook users, followed how rainfall influenced the emotional content of social media posts and the contagious effect of those posts on others in areas not experiencing rainfall.
 
How Can I Spread More Kindness?
Why not spread kindness throughout your network and watch it ripple outward? Here are a few simple ways to start:
 
1. Pause before you speak (or hit “post”). At SIYLI, we use a practice called the Siberian North Railroad for dealing with triggers, which is useful in situations where we encounter negative or distressing emotions. “Siberian North Railroad,” SBNRR, is a mneumonic device to help remember each of the five steps:
Stop: Whenever you feel triggered, stop. Pausing at the onset of a trigger is a powerful and important skill. Do not react in any way for a moment. This moment is known as “the sacred pause,” and it could well be the most important part of every conversation you have.

  • Breathe: By focusing our mind on the breath, we strengthen the sacred pause. In addition, taking deep breaths calms the body and mind.
  • Notice: Experience your emotion by bringing attention to your body. What does it feel like in the body? Try to analyze the emotion as simply a physiological phenomenon, not an existential phenomenon.
  • Reflect: Where is the emotion coming from? Is there history behind it? Is there a self-perceived inadequacy involved? Without judging it to be right or wrong, bring this perspective to the situation.
  • Respond: Bring to mind ways you could respond to the situation that would have a positive outcome. Imagine the kindest, most positive response (perhaps it’s opposite of where you begin) and then decide how to proceed.

2. Flip the script. As mentioned in the research above, when we interact with people, it's natural to mirror them. Thus, hostility begets hostility. Kindness begets kindness. And so on. Breaking this mirroring reaction, what psychologists call “non-complementary behavior,” is a way to respond to a situation in a non-reactive way that can be powerfully disarming. Learn how to diffuse conflict by flipping the script.
 
3. Try a loving kindness meditation. This 10-minute guided meditation with SIYLI teacher Meg Levie encourages you to allow yourself to receive compassion for yourself and extend it to others.