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HAPPINESS COLUMN | How 'contagious' altruism can help us fight COVID-19

COVID-19 has created a global pandemic and with it, a lot of anxiety. And that anxiety, perhaps ironically, is also contagious. It's known as a social contagion. Whether you're feeling anxious, altruistic or steady as a rock, others may be picking up on it.

Whether you're acting anxious, altruistic or steady as a rock — others may be picking up on it

See shops that have closed in Toronto, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senior citizen with assistive walking device in the foreground. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

COVID-19 has created a global pandemic, and with it, a lot of anxiety.

Perhaps ironically, that anxiety can also be contagious. 

It's what's known as a social contagion. So whether you're acting anxious, altruistic or steady as a rock — others may be picking up on it. 

What is social contagion?

Social contagion refers to a person's tendency to copy others who they are either physically close to, or who they've been exposed to through a medium such as social media, TV or the radio.

Mirror neurons play a huge role in this behaviour. They fire both when we act and when we observe the same action performed by another. 

The more we repeat and observe these actions the more ingrained they become in our brains. When people start to cluster and behave in the same way, these actions start to "catch on" and eventually spread out to society en masse.

Types of social contagions

Divorce, loneliness, depression, smoking, alcoholism, criminality, consumer behaviour and happiness are all types of social contagion.

When it comes to happiness, a joint Harvard and UC San Diego study found that a person with a happy friend living within a half mile could increase their happiness by 25 per cent.

 A happy sibling increased a person's happiness by 14 per cent and a happy neighbour can make a person 34 per cent happier. Sadly, spouses only make us eight per cent happier.

What is so compelling about this study is how much of an impact others can have on our mood and behaviours.

Anxiety is another social contagion and with so much stress occurring at the same time, it can be highly contagious and even become quite dangerous.

In social psychology, hysterical contagion occurs when people in a group show signs of a physical problem or illness, when in reality there are psychological and social forces at work. People could be misidentifying signs of COVID-19 because they are panicking.

On a smaller scale, we are also infecting our families with an anxiety contagion if we are consistently in a state of high stress.

People need to take time to seek out positivity and strive for resilience.

We may not be thriving right now, but we also need to realize that constant stress does not serve us. We can remain aware and hopeful at the same time. It serves us better than living in fear.

Journalists practice social distancing outside a meeting in Washington, D.C., to wrap up work on coronavirus economic aid legislation. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

Importance of altruism

Instead of spreading anxiety, try to spread altruism. Altruism is when we act to promote someone else's welfare, even at a risk or sacrifice to ourselves.

Studies have found altruism has deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. That being said, evidence suggests people have both altruistic and selfish tendencies.

So, we need to promote altruism more robustly to get it to "catch on" during times when we need to invoke that behaviour broadly and urgently. 

How we can spread altruism

Social distancing — now known as physical distancing — is now at the centre of our daily discussions and has even become something of a rallying cry for Canadians.

However, there are groups that are resistant to the concept. Teens and young adults for starters, who are currently the least compliant when it comes to physical distancing.

Blame an evolutionary hangover. Young brains are filled with hormones that at one time give them the confidence to leave their tribe so they could start exploring and hunting for food.

This feeling of invincibility nudges teenagers to engage in risky behaviour and makes them highly susceptible to the contagious behaviour of rule-breaking. 

To get teenagers and other rule-resisters on board with physical distancing, we need to create a tipping point where people believe it is socially unacceptable to break the rules. We also must create a sense that people feel emotionally rewarded for "taking one for the team."

We need to get people to engage in acts of altruism and then share these stories of altruism so they spread to other communities

4-year-old Presley Muir and 6-year-old Scotia Muir stand in front of a chalk sign they drew while trying to keep busy over the weekend in North Vancouver on Monday, March 23, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)


There are such great examples out there right now, like musicians performing from their living rooms and authors reading their books on social media.

Teachers are offering free lessons for strained parents, people are singing from their balconies and teaching workout classes from their roofs.

We've witnessed a high school band that put on a concert for the elderly in a nursing home and a new hashtag pop up on Twitter #SelfIsolationHelp, to connect people who need help with those who can give it.

The list goes on. We just have to seek out these stories and, even more importantly, follow up by engaging in these actions ourselves.

It sparks this great chemistry that some describe as good as eating chocolate, which encourages us to want to do engage in that behaviour again.

It also makes us feel like we are bonded to others who are in the same boat. This inevitably helps people to follow the rules that help the greater good.  

We need to remember that fear is also contagious, but fear makes no mark on the fearless. To truly spread the kind of behaviours we desperately need right now, we need to let go of fear and connect with messages that resonate in the heart. 

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