Contagious laughter and the power of positivity

Is it possible to get out on the wrong side of bed? Is laughter really contagious? Can you control positivity and negativity? Annie Ridout explores these ideas, using her daughter as a guinea pig (kind of)…

(This was originally published in March 2016)

I was in the park with my daughter, she was on the swings going back and forth… back and forth… and enjoying it but not really enjoying it. Occasionally, I’d keep the swing suspended in mid-air, and she’d shake her little legs with excitement, before letting it drop heavily back down and swing wildly. Or stick my bum in the air and let her pretend to kick me so that I fly forward onto the grass. This is the kind of *fun game* we play each day on our jaunts to the park. She laughed, half-heartedly.

A little boy got into the swing next to her. He was already grinning from ear to ear. I wondered what tricks his dad was going to pull out. And that’s when I realised he was about to really outdo me. He did the suspension thing… but for way longer, and with an epic crescendo – sending his son flying through the air, with squeals of delight. And he did the kick-the-bum game, but was actually diving onto the grass like a stuntman.

Children and contagious laughter

Shit, I thought. My daughter is going to think I totally suck. But I looked over at her and she was giggling along with the little boy. His laughter was contagious, and she’d caught it. This was the best possible outcome: dad next to me puts in every ounce of effort he has to give; I reap the benefits by hanging back, barely even pushing my daughter on the swings, and she’s still having the best time ever.

But more importantly, what this highlighted was how quickly happiness can spread from one child to another. Everything with children is so real and raw – it is unfiltered, sincere; they don’t have the intellectual capacity, as toddlers, to choose their emotions – it all just comes flowing out. And it made me think: imagine if adults could live in the moment and experience these physical emotions, unaffected by all the other thoughts that usually distract us.

Another example: the boys in the picture above. I met them in India about 10 years ago. It was late at night, I’d been travelling a while, and they came up asking me for money. Like so many of the children I met, living in abject poverty, these boys had this amazing, positive energy. One of them cracked a joke about ‘lurgies’ and they all burst out laughing. This is testament to the power of positivity and contagious laughter. Moreover, if these boys can find a reason to laugh and be happy, surely we all can?

But unlike children we have a tendency, as adults, to wake up not feeling great and to start telling ourselves we ‘got out on the wrong side of bed’. However, there isn’t a wrong side. Perhaps you didn’t sleep very well, or feel anxious about something, or don’t have much to look forward to but on the whole, we determine how our day pans out. So if you wake up feeling crap, you can let that negative feeling overwhelm your day or you can ignore it; banish it, smile in front of the mirror, release some endorphins and work on lifting your mood.

Spend time with positive people

Another important aspect of this is surrounding yourself with people who make you feel good. Who make you smile and laugh, who celebrate your success, who don’t put you down but instead lift you up. Because in the same way that negative thoughts can spiral from “I feel a bit crap this morning” to an entire day – or more – feeling that everything is going wrong, so, too, can positive thoughts spiral out of control. In the best way possible. Remember: it all comes from within.

Positivity is contagious, too

Do an experiment. Go in to a shop with a massive smile on your face, dressed in brightly coloured clothes, find something to compliment the cashier on and see how they react. The likelihood is that they’ll feed off your positive vibes, and send more back your way. Once, I tried this and the man gave me a free jumpsuit. It’s like magic. And then try walking into a shop and not smiling, not saying thank you, not looking in the shop assistant’s eyes. It will make you feel even worse and might just bring them down with you.

Briefly, it’s important to note that while some people allow themselves to dwell in a pit of negativity there are of course others who either suffer with mental health issues, or have experienced something traumatic that’s causing them to feel down. These people shouldn’t be neglected, or left to suffer on their own; they need support. But more importantly: they need laughter and brightness and anything that will make them feel lighter – from you.

So, in conclusion, you can’t get out on the wrong side of bed. But if you wake up feeling a bit down you have the power to push your face into a smile; to find something that will make you laugh, to gush with positivity – even if it’s insincere, initially – when you encounter another person, and eventually you’ll start to really feel it. And make sure you surround yourself with upbeat, positive people, because they’ll have the same effect on you as that little boy in the swings; who by simply releasing his sweet little giggle turned my daughter from slightly bored to elated. It really is contagious.

What do you think: can laughter be contagious? Is it possible to spread positivity…?