Creating Contagious Happiness

A blend of rich minds assemple on Twitter every Tuesday at 11am for a discussion hosted by @ChicagoIdeas. Mick Ebeling of Not Impossible Labs broke from 3D printing for humanity and joined us as a co-host this past Tuesday. He led a discussion on “Help One, Help Many.” Of the customary five questions proposed throughout the #ideaschat hour, the second question recollected a theory/thought I had several years ago that was accompanied by a diagram.


A woman with short hair, glasses, in her early/mid 40’s and the brightest smile you’ve ever seen was a checkout clerk at the Dominick’s grocery store a few blocks from my apartment. I’d see her there regularly. And every time I checked out, I would seek out her line—even if it meant waiting an extra five or ten minutes (Avoid grocery shopping immediately after work if you can help it!).

Consequential Strangers

At this point in time, I was reading an evocative social science book called Consequential Strangers. Imagine a spectrum of interpersonal relationships with complete strangers on one end and intimate friends and beyond on the other. In between are varying degrees of consequential strangers. One segment I find particularly fascinating is nearer the complete strangers and the impact they can have on one’s life. Think of your mailman or barista or …grocery store checkout clerk.

Here’s a brief clip of the author Melinda Blau explaining this segment of consequential strangers:

Why I waited in line for Sharon

Sharon was one of those people that just shines. Radiating happiness, it was impossible not to smile when you’re talking with her. It’s the kind of feeling typically reserved for momentously positive occasions like scratching off $500 on a $2 lottery ticket from the gas station. We knew one another as ‘consequential strangers.’ She always recognized me and in our brief encounters we might speak about our upcoming plans with friends and family but nothing much beyond. We weren’t strangers but we weren’t friends either. Oddly, my favorite moment of each of those abbreviated conversations took place outside when I reflected upon my trip along the conveyor belt and impulse buys.

From a distance, it seems silly that a visit to the grocery store could create an impact so positive. Particularly because grocery stores typically elicit remorse for having to drudge through the cold. And the only redeeming factor is buying a box of cookies sold with regretful satisfaction.

An interaction with Sharon though, could set the mood for the next hour and sometimes the rest of the day. I would make it a point to pass on good vibes to all those I encountered.

Several ideas came to me one day.

Contagious Happiness/Positivity

Happiness like negativity, can be contagious. But it seems to be more difficult to transmit. Certainly compliments can be effective, but what about general demeanor? Sharon’s disposition for instance. It comes naturally to some and others need a bit of inspiration. My natural state is upbeat but it takes more than waking up on the right side of the bed to make it contagious to others.

Some people are more sensitive or receptive than others. Some are in states of mind that cannot change and some won’t care.

How does one break the barrier of those that aren’t initially open to the idea of changing their mindset, whether conscious or unconscious?

How long do the effects last? By transmiting the positivity yourself, can you reinforce the effects so they last longer?

In the end, there will always be one who doesn’t pay it forward, but we can at least try.

To the interested #ideaschatters: I found a first draft of my diagram but it was drawn as a cycle (and it was rather incomplete). This idea makes more sense as a network.

Social Contagion Network Image

Help One, Help Many

Social and positive psychology can provide some answers and this contagious happiness theory seems to be comprised of at least internalization, a broad category of social influence. According to Wikipedia, internalization is when “The individual accepts the influence because the content of the influence accepted is intrinsically rewarding..” And it also looks to be a behavioral contagion — “a spontaneous, unsolicited and uncritical imitation of another’s behavior.”

We can also derive ideas from network theory, particularly diffusion on networks. But I’ll leave that for another day.


Have you experienced anyone like Sharon? 

Do you have any thoughts on contagious happiness?


**Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on any assumptions