A great meditation teacher once described the frightening scene in the refugee boats floating adrift after the end of the Vietnam war. Overcrowded with children and elderly people, rich and poor, and everyone in between, it soon became clear that if one person in the boat began to panic, everyone would sink. But if one person remained calm, the whole group could remain calm, and everyone could survive.
So many cultures, spiritual traditions, and even social and neuroscience tell us that our emotions, positive or negative, are contagious. Sometimes, we are called to be the calm one in the storm buffeting humanity, as COVID-19 has done in this lifeboat we call planet earth.
For me that call first came a few years ago, in the midst of practicing a loving-kindness meditation at a very challenging job, where I worked alongside many difficult people. I realized that perhaps I would be the “benefactor” in someone else’s life. This became even more clear to me when I read up on the research about resilience and discovered that one of the best predictors of resilience and thriving in young people who have grown up with multiple traumatic events known as ACEs or Adverse Childhood Events, is the presence of one caring, compassionate and consistent adult in their lives. Adults can provide this for each other, too, of course, and so can kids with their peers.
Calm is Contagious
The old saying goes that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. These days consider that not just who you’re with physically as you shelter in place, but who you’re hanging out with on social media as well.
Within families, we find that when one person practices mindfulness, it impacts others. Parents who practice mindfulness, even if their partners or their kids roll their eyes, make the whole family happier, with better communication and fewer accidents in the home. Parents of special needs kids who practice seem to have kids whose worrisome behavior decreased, and social skills and mood seemed to get better, helping siblings too. When one spouse practices, both appear to be happier with the relationship, which itself is often less reactive and conflict driven.
Another more recent study enrolled college students who had roommates, romantic partners, friends and family members with whom they interacted daily, and who didn’t know what the study was about. The students meditated fifteen minutes a day for several weeks, two weeks on, and two weeks off. Their moods were measured every day. The weeks the students spent meditating, their partners reported fewer negative emotions than the weeks the students didn’t meditate. This offers good evidence that you really can help the mood of the people around you by simply practicing meditation yourself, extending good vibes to your friends, family, and loved ones during this challenging time.
But it doesn’t stop with the people in our home. Positive psychology finds an even larger ripple effect. All kinds of positive emotions seem to spread between people, perhaps bouncing off our mirror neurons in what researchers like Daniel Siegel call “Interpersonal Neurobiology.” According to James Fowler and Nick Christakis, who study emotions and behaviors in networks, happiness impacts others four degrees of separation away, and even just witnessing an act of kindness can lead to more kindness three degrees away.
The best meme I saw last week as COVID-19 swept the globe is that this represents a once in a lifetime chance to save the world by sitting on the couch in our pajamas and not leaving the house. Spending some time on our meditation cushion might help too.