Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Emotion Contagion

Last weekend’s NYTimes had an op-ed from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton. It questioned this new, prevalent disease we all are facing: the ailment known as “Zoom-fatigue.” Symptoms include lack of productivity, lack of desire to interact on the computer, and abstaining from online communal gatherings and webinars. Researchers have suggested that Zoom-fatigue stems from sitting still, feeling self-conscious about seeing yourself on screen, and the cognitive load of reading glitchy facial expressions.

Yet Grant questions this modern day malady. He offers an alternative theory: The languishing we feel, the malaise we felt and may still feel in our everyday lives may not have been from Zoom itself. It may actually be the product of something called “emotional contagion.” “Emotions,” he explains, “are like contagious diseases: They can spread from person to person…[it is literally being] infected with other people’s emotions.” He continues: “the science of contagion suggests that the negative emotions we feel from video-call overuse could be partially driven by hours of communicating with people who are also sad, stressed, lonely or tired.”

So it turns out COVID isn’t the only virus being passed around. Before COVID, more acutely in the pandemic, and even when it's over, turns out we humans have a knack for transferring our negative emotions from one person to another. This doesn’t only happen from face-to-face interaction, but also from interaction on social media and text messages.

But before we make things worse by disseminating this bad news, it turns out that emotional contagion is just as virulent for positive emotions as it is for negative ones. According to the research, peak happiness, while achievable individually, is even more attainable in group settings.

Grant says, “We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence. It’s a concept coined in the early 20th century by the pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose. Collective effervescence is the synchrony you feel when you slide into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, cousins at a religious service or teammates on a soccer field. And during this pandemic, it’s been largely absent from our lives.”

This explains our desire to get back to concerts, plays and even into this room for services. It goes beyond fun beyond being in a flow state. We get internally charged by the shared project of joyful activity. We literally light each other up.

Before Covid, research showed that more than three-quarters of people found collective effervescence at least once a week and almost a third experienced it at least once a day. Go from that to zero. The last year and half, we’ve been sharing our negative emotions and have little positive ones to pass around.

Religious ceremonies and observances, particularly in Jewish tradition, exist to share these positive emotions. Passover? The joy of freedom. Tu b’Shevat? Appreciation for nature. Hanukkah? The thrill of beating the odds. Even Yom Kippur, which, while solemn, is not sad. Yom Kippur - inviting awe into our lives.

That all said, cut to Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which begins tomorrow evening. Tisha B’av commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple - not once, but twice - as well as all the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time. Expulsions, inquisitions, pograms, massacres and genocide. Traditional Jews fast, avoid using luxury items and bathing. It is a day of collective mourning, 24 hours of sharing dirges and verses from the Book of Lamentations. We gather together and sit on the floor. Weeping and hungry, we pass around nothing but negativity and sadness.

Or do we?

Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, reads as an elegy. It describes the siege and destruction of Jerusalem: a place once alive with the busyness of life is now desolate and charred. Hunger, thirst, rape and pillage linger in its stones. Lamentations 3 describes teeth broken on gravel, a person’s soul ground to dust. “My life was bereft of peace, I forgot what happiness was. I thought my strength and hope had perished before the Eternal.”

But just uttering the word hope sparks something within the narrator. At this point, their mood turns. “But this I call to mind, I have hope...God’s kindness has not ended, God’s mercy is not spent...God is my portion, I say with a full heart, therefore in God I hope.”

As the narrator speaks, as we continue to read, hope breaches our darkness. Its light increases the more we call upon it. We utter the word once. Then again. Then it merges with the word of our neighbor. Hope. What once was a whisper is now a melody. Connected more, is now a chorus. Hope. Pass it on.

I doubt many of us would call Jewish culture “optimistic.” We’re notoriously cynical, sarcastic and realistic. But we are a hopeful people. How can that be? What is the difference?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make things better...it takes a great deal of courage to have hope...hope is what transforms the human situation.” It’s an important distinction he makes: optimism can be naive. In a way, it yields any responsibility. Hope, though, is a building block on which our souls and our society get stronger.

He reminds us that we Jews, knowing what we know of history and humanity, are uniquely positioned to lead with hope and build a happier world.

In this week’s Torah portion, D’varim, Moses is nearing the end of his life and he begins to recount the years in the wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy is his own re-telling. He leads with stories of Israelite bickering, their complaining, their great transgressions against each other and God. This was his greatest frustration, afterall.

But then he reminds them, in Deut 2:7 - “Indeed, the Eternal your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. God has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Eternal your God has been with you these past forty years: you have lacked nothing.” There’s a refrain in his remarks: you went somewhere, you sinned, but then God told you to get up, go on, get moving from there. “Don’t fear,” the portion ends, “the Eternal your God will battle for you.”

Our ancestors had no naivete. They were anything but optimists: from the grumble and doubt of the wilderness, to the anguish and melancholy of our many catastrophes, they knew the world was harsh. Yet they held the radical notion that we can muster enough courage, build enough hope to do so. This would and will only happen by sharing that hope, by leaning on one another. There is an imperative to share in as many moments of collective effervescence as we can muster - on Zoom and elsewhere. Lamentations ends with:

השיבנו יהוה אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

Return to one another, return to our communal spaces - either virtually or in person - and return to God - the infinite Oneness, the song of joy that pervades all that is.

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