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A contagion worth spreading

Chances are, you’re cooped up indoors due to COVID (somewhere in the world) while reading this.

And chances are, given the varying degrees of social restrictions imposed upon us, our main social go-to is probably social media, and it may remain so for the foreseeable future.

When I took my first tentative step into the realm of social media (i.e., Facebook) back in 2007, one friend wryly posted on my timeline: “Welcome to Facebook. The best place in the world to waste time!”, followed by three laugh-out-loud emojis.

It was indeed an addictive distraction. I re-established contact with many of my schoolmates whom I hadn’t seen since we left high school at 17. And I found that regular, short posts kept close friends and family informed of the goings-on in my life, doing away with the tedium of writing emails or snail mail.

Yet, social media has evolved into a double edged sword. It was aptly encapsulated by the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma”, which opened with a quote by Sophocles: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”

If you ask me, the human trait most cursed by social media is “kindness.” Somehow the anonymity afforded us by this medium has somewhat given some carte blanche to be downright unkind to strangers, and which we may not have the temerity do in person.

Take for instance a post I’d spotted online today, which incidentally happens to be World Kindness Day.

I’m a member of diverse Facebook groups comprising expats, women or local residents.

Anyway, members of the local residents’ group are generally free to post whatever they want, although people often post pictures that they’ve taken somewhere within or outside the city. Of late, the trend has been to post “Indian summer” pictures of the trees and parks in all their autumnal glory. Most attract thumbs up reactions and good natured praise.

Today, one lady posted a picture of a barge on the Rhine River; it wasn’t anything spectacular and didn’t quite boast the colour saturation and sharpness to match the works of the group’s other photography enthusiasts.

The first commenter (whom I assume is a distant cousin of either the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge) snidely remarked, “Fantastically blurred, wonderful.” The conversation rapidly went southwards with strangers arguing about the merits of the photo itself while others defended the poster against the unkind criticism.

All I could do was shake my head. This was simply a picture of a random barge going down a river. One could have simply scrolled down one’s Newsfeed, past said (albeit imperfect) picture and not belittled someone else’s contribution. This was after all not a submission to the Global Photography Awards. And even that doesn’t warrant an unnecessarily callous remark.

And this is but one example of daily online interactions where crankiness and contrariness often seem to be the order of the day. Think Twitter, and you get the picture.

This is not to say that giving and receiving criticism has no place in our daily dealings; just that, there is a time and place to do so. And when you can’t tell when to hold your tongue remember that age-old adage, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.”

Even science states that being kind benefits not just the recipient but also the doer.

Dr David R. Hamilton, a kindness advocate and author of the 5 Side Effects of Kindness, says for starters that kindness increases dopamine – or the happy hormone – levels in our brain. And that warm, fuzzy feeling we experience after being kind or being shown kindness? Well, that’s probably the increased oxytocin levels that not only keeps our hearts healthy by dilating blood vessels and lowering blood pressure; it also reduces the levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system that keeps us looking youthful. Better than spending a fortune on creams and potions, right?

Besides, as social beings, kindness builds and bolsters relationships, which even if for now is only virtual. And finally, people shown kindness are likely to it spread too.

In fact, in April this year, Hamilton via a Facebook video drawing parallels between the contagiousness of COVID and that of kindness using the scientific “reproduction number” (or Rt).

He explained how (at that time) one infected person had an Rt of 2.5 (meaning that the infected person could infect on average a further 2.5 people). And these 2.5 people will go on to infect 2.5 people each and so on.

Whereas he estimated the Rt for kindness at around 5. Following the same theory of spread this would mean that kindness exponentially spreads faster and wider making it “significantly more contagious than coronavirus.”

Isn’t that eye-opening?

Thus, it is incumbent upon each of us as we ride this latest wave of COVID to show kindness whenever and wherever we can. Perhaps we could start on this World Kindness Day by being extra mindful of the posts or comments we share on social media.

For after all, it won’t cost us a thing and given its beneficial side effects, kindness is certainly a contagion worth spreading instead of COVID.

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