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Holiday Cheer

History offers some dramatic examples of how the human brain is designed for emotional contagion.

Perhaps the craziest on record is the Dancing Plague of 1518. It reportedly began when a woman, Frau Troffea, started dancing in the streets of Strasbourg, France, and didn’t stop until she collapsed from exhaustion. Then she started again. Within days, 30 other people began nonstop dancing with her, and not out of joy—but because of a mental compulsion they caught from her, resulting in exhaustion and even one heart attack.

Crazy, but what if stories like this show that we could also create an equally compelling positive contagion that actually made people healthier and happier?

During this time of year, the axiom “it’s better to give than to receive” works with both gifts and moods alike, and it’s truly better to give happiness than to receive stress and anxiety from others.

Here’s one simple way: Give three “gifts,” three smiles more than you normally would. Smile at a stranger on the subway, at a co-worker you don’t know or during an otherwise dull meeting.

Researchers have found that when you flex your smile, your brain releases dopamine, which improves your mood. But better yet, you just got that other person’s brain to change as well. Maybe your gift to the world this holiday season will be a contagious outbreak of joy.

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