Are You Contagious?

In this world of heightened economic instability, so many of our friends, neighbors and family members are suffering.  They are scared and unhappy about having to work longer hours, be in fear for their jobs and make sacrifices to maintain financial solvency.  It should come as no surprise that our community is anxious and feeling the ship of normalcy list perilously against the tide.  How then, are we to come to their aid, when the rest of us are worried about our paychecks too?  Could it be as simple as being hopeful in the face of despair?  Can we influence our community with our own resolute assertion that things will work out?  Maybe.

In his groundbreaking book, “Connected,” and in his TED Talk, Nicholas Christakis (and co-author James Fowler) postulate that ideas, behaviors and emotions spread through social networks.   The degree to which these spread depends on your location within that network.  To be clear, good and bad spread through social networks like contagions.  Obesity, smoking, drinking, loneliness and depression all spread through social networks.  But so do happiness, inventiveness and altruism.  This news came as bittersweet to me.  Okay, so we can counteract some of the negative feelings and behaviors others may be having in unsure times.  But is that enough?  I say, let’s generate our own “quiet riot” of hope.

Things I can spread in my daily life in suburbia:

1.  Humor.  A good laugh is like a flu shot.  It’s preventative against all kinds of ills and just bad ju-ju.  You don’t have to walk up to a person who just got laid off and tell them a joke.  Just tell a joke, and let the social network do it’s job.

2.  Hope.  On 9/11/01, my husband and I brought home our first baby from the hospital.  It was incredibly stressful, but we rented Spinal Tap and talked and sat outside in the sun.  It was hard not to feel disrespectful, attempting to ignore the obvious, but it gave me hope that normalcy would return.  Small joys are underrated.

3. Give.  Give money?  If you have it.  Give time? Yes.  Give of yourself?  Absolutely.  It’s a proven fact that altruism spreads through communities.  That could mean a granola bar from your car to a homeless guy sleeping under a tree.  Or it it  could mean playing Wii with your child instead of checking your email.   It could mean going to a PTA meeting or bringing a meal to a neighbor that just had a baby.  In suburbia, our social networks will vibrate with a pay it forward attitude.

4.  Accept.  It’s not for me to judge anyone for needing help.  What’s so wrong with being vulnerable?  Our culture values independence, great!   But I’d like to put in a plug for being stuck in a shitty place in life.  From this place, my most vital life lessons were learned.  When your life sucked, how did your life trajectory change?  Did blaming help?

5.  Listen.  Someone has an idea, a complaint, a worry.  Your friend’s husband just took a 25% paycut.  Your neighbor’s mortgage is underwater.  Your friend’s financial worries are impacting her marriage.  They want to talk about it.  Shut up (I’m talking to myself here, too).  Listen.

6. Respect.  I hear so much talk about people finding their passion in their work, finding a job you love,etc.  Have you ever had a crappy job?  Of course it sucks, but there is dignity in any job that allows you to provide for your family, afford a good happy hour and gives you countless stories to tell your friends.  Sometimes you have to go to work full time at a job you hate and suck it up. There are so many jobs out there that would be really difficult for me to do, given my abilities and limitations.  A teacher, a postal worker, a computer programmer, a salesperson, a garbage collector, a carpet layer, a septic tank cleaner, a manufacturing job, etc., etc…  All of these jobs have taken a hit in the economy, in the media or in our stereotypes of what kind of person may do this type of work.  Fuck it.  These people work their asses off, and are doing the real work.  To them I say:  Thank you for doing a thankless job.  There is honor in what you do.  And if you can’t find a job, I respect your desire to get one.

This is an evolutionary advantage to social networks.  The more you have, the better your life is likely to be.  The collective influence of the whole network makes the sum greater than it’s parts.  Christakis believes that social networks are “fundamentally related to goodness,” which gives me tremendous hope.  We can make it together, without judgment.  Our suburban social network is ready for the lift.

For Deborah.

It’s gonna be alright.