The Contagious Wave

I was driving down a two-lane road that cut through a dense, wet forest. It was raining and off in the distance I saw a person waving at the passing cars.

This was not a Queen Elizabeth-style wrist-rotation wave, mind you—but a full-blown overhead-arching howdy-do to each car that drove by.

I smiled in spite of myself. Because, really, who the heck is so cheery on such a dreary day?

I smile and wave at cars as well while walking the dog. I consider it proper, country-road etiquette. However, my smile is tepid and my wave is minimal because I don’t know who’s inside the car and whether they’re friendly or not. Or, frankly, whether they’re worth my wave. But I do wave, cautiously, nonetheless.

Clearly, this woman —this older woman I realized as I got closer—felt differently. And as she waved to each passing car, I’m quite certain she managed to brighten nearly everyone’s day. How do I know this to be true? Because of the impact of our mirror neurons.

How We Can Brighten One Another\’s Day

Ever yawn when someone else yawns? Beam when you see a happy baby? Laugh because someone else is laughing? That’s your mirror neurons at work. They allow us to literally feel what others are feeling and experience their emotions.

We are social beings and, in fact, our brains have grown so big because we are wired for connection. As Dr. Giocomo Rizzolatti, the neurophysiologist who discovered mirror neurons through his work with monkeys (learn more here) explains:

“We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”

Mirror neurons are responsible for how we learn — love — survive — thrive — and probably imitate violence, too. It means that when we see happy people, there’s a likely chance we’re going to experience some of their happiness, too. In short, the woman who waved likely had a significantly positive impact on others.

Empathetic Connections and The Ripple Effect

In fact, her happiness positively impacted 25% of the people in her network within a one-mile radius, and 15% of those beyond! The next level — first degree of separation — had a positive impact on 10% of their network, who then had a 6% positive impact on their friends and associates. (Christakis and Fowler, 2008)

I am NOT encouraging a “Don’t worry, be happy” mindset. That would be blind optimism because when we turn our backs on reality, we lose our ability to empathize, to problem-solve and to see things for their true reality.

What I am calling out is the impact of connection and relationships: what is innate to our brains and behavior and yet appears to be increasingly devalued in our professional, political and community conversations.

Because whether you’re on the giving end and feeling great, or on the receiving end and needing a lift — empathetic connections are the glue that holds us all together.

When we wave, when we smile, when we make a welcoming connection, we also make the world around us just a wee-bit better. We forget that it can be this easy — and, yes, just a wave away.

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