There, sitting in her car after shopping at a Kohl’s department store, Payne is transported by four minutes of pure joy in donning a Chewbacca mask. And now, more than 100 million people have likely smiled, chuckled and laughed with her. Our chests warmed, our spirits lifted. We may have even felt the receding — if just for a moment — of life’s many worries.
We’ve been here before. Babies laughing at ripped paper. Double rainbow.
What is happening in these viral moments of joy is as deeply revealing about who we are as a species as our capacity for language, for toolmaking or our opposable thumb.
Humans have developed a set of virtues that spread good will through social networks, including gratitude, sharing and kindness. All have viral potential. When we express gratitude, share, or show kindness, the recipient is moved, often unwittingly, to collaborate and show good will with others. As I explain in my new book, “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence,” the expression of these viral virtues weaves through our social fabric.
Viral joy begins in a potent signal of the emotion. Watch Payne’s video and you will see a pure expression of joy that my lab at Berkeley has been studying for the past 20 years: a suppressed laugh followed by delirious bouts of full-throated laughter, and then contractions of the orbicularis oculi, the muscle surrounding the eye, that signals joy. And, there is the slapping of the thigh, body and heading-shaking, and a near-breathlessness brought about by deep patterns of exhalation that systematically accompany laughter.
In one recent study, when Daniel Cordaro presented such sounds of laughter to people in 11 different cultures, including people in remote Bhutan, these people knew it was a sign of mirth and levity about 90% of the time. Joyous laughter is a universal human experience.
It’s also good for us. We know from scientific studies that this kind of laughter calms cardiovascular stress, producing a state of calm after the convulsive movements accompanying the laugh. Notice Payne’s blissed out look near the end of her video.
When a joy signal is perceived by others — in this case, millions of others — something remarkable happens. It triggers contagious, and often unconscious, joy in observers. Viral virtues such as joy spread to others through the empathy network in our frontal lobes, activated by perceptions of others’ emotional expressions.
Research, particularly by Naomi Eisenberger at the University of California, Los Angeles, has shown that for most people who witness someone in physical pain, their own pain network in the brain (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex), is activated. Observers of Payne’s joy very likely experienced some activation in their joy-related circuits in the brain (dopamine-rich nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum), and a sense of calm, perspective and willingness to engage with others: all qualities of joy.
Observers feeling contagious joy triggered by Payne’s laughter now carry that emotion with them. Feeling more joyous, they themselves will show the signs of joy and be disposed to share, cooperate, and connect with others to broaden and build their social networks. Through these viral processes, suggests studies by James Fowler, our joy spreads virally to friends and acquaintances in our social networks, lifting their spirits later in time.
The same is true of the other viral virtues. For example, when we share a resource with someone, that person will share it with those who share and so on. When we express gratitude to someone, that individual, studies find, is more likely to act in appreciative and kind ways with others. The transmission of viral joy, gratitude, sharing and kindness collectively strengthen our social networks.