The holiday season puts a spotlight on our relationships – both positive and problematic – with our loved ones, our neighbors, our colleagues, and our communities. It is a season that underscores the way social behavior influences our health. These times can be stressful, as reflected in the abundance of advice on how to navigate everything from family meals to getting enough sleep. Disagreements, all too close to the surface in these times, can flare up into outright anger, discord, and conflict. Such emotions are contagious and can spread to others and last far beyond the season. The good news is we can prevent unhealthy behaviors, and we can act to make the holidays healthier. Positive emotions and healthy behaviors are contagious too, and we can use that awareness to spread healthy practices.
“Social contagion” parallels biological contagion; both influence the spread of health and illness. The idea of social contagion highlights that each of us is embedded in social networks that influence our health and well-being, just as our physical environment influences our health. In health care we are most familiar with biological spread of infectious diseases (e.g., the flu) and prevention efforts through vaccination, quarantine, etc. Over the past several decades researchers have supplemented our understanding of biological contagion with strong evidence for social contagion and its influence on health. Studies on obesity, alcohol use, loneliness, smoking, and happiness have broadened our understanding of how health can be influenced through social networks and the behavior of those around us.
Some familiar public health practices illustrate healthful behaviors that prevent illness and save lives. The designated driver campaign reduces automobile accidents, and covering your mouth or nose when coughing or sneezing (and not using your hands!) prevents spreading the flu. Addressing violence through public health interventions includes using positive social contagion to interrupt spread, reduce the risk, and change the norms for neighborhood behavior.
Social contagion highlights that when any of us behave in a healthful way, that behavior has ripple effects throughout our networks. Perhaps the simplest example is smiling – when you smile, it prompts a smile in return. Positive emotions spread through networks, underscoring the power that each of us has to influence those around us for the better.
Opportunities for spreading health are not limited to in-person interactions. Social media is a fertile ground for modelling and reinforcing healthy behavior. An example from Twitter illustrates the power of kindness as an antidote to anger and the ripple effect across networks. In social media the effects of both anger and kindness can be amplified to many others far beyond the effects from an interpersonal encounter, so we should be as mindful in our online behavior as we are in person to foster healthy relationships.
As we approach the holidays let’s take the opportunity to build on the norms and behaviors that promote health. We can be more courteous, respectful, kind, caring, and confident that these acts will spread through networks to foster our collective health and well-being. ‘Tis the season!