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Germs Just Love Grumps

September 14, 2003

Some very friendly scientists, who work well together and admire each other's skills to no end, have made a new medical discovery: Being sociable, agreeable, having friends, all of that huggy, have-a-really-nice-day-you're-looking-great stuff, leads to better health. So if people will cut out fried food, run an hour a day and lift weights until arms ache and thighs burn to get healthy, will they be friendly and sociable for the same goal?

The results were published in this month's Psychological Science. Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, led a team that studied 334 men and women for four years, even swabbing noses and throats. Through detailed interviews, questionnaires, diaries and surveys they gauged subjects' sociability, extraversion, agreeableness and positive relationship style. Then each person was quarantined and exposed to a cold virus. (Hey, they were paid $800.)

Lo and behold, the most agreeable people proved more immune to infection. The grumps got the colds. (So there is justice after all.) This doesn't mean that going around saying, "Hey, how 'bout those Dodgers?" will prevent pneumonia. But the absence of unfriendliness and its stresses seems to leave the body with more energy, chemicals and attention span to address more healthful goals. Friendly encounters also encourage folks to think better of themselves and live healthier lives.

Just imagine if this caught on like jogging. You go out for this newspaper tomorrow and 100 neighbors are lined up on the sidewalk like a choir, smiling and chanting in unison, "Hello, how are you today?" You mumble, "Um, fine, thanks." And they reply, "That's grrreat!" before moving on to the next house to continue improving their health.

On the freeway, traffic is paralyzed because every driver is inviting the other to go first. Truckers smile and wave all five fingers. A coffee shop worker follows customers outside to double-check their satisfaction. Co-workers stop by seeking details of your child's last three soccer games. The janitor calls, "Is it too cool or warm in your cubicle?" At lunch, everyone offers to pay the entire tab. The bank calls to say it appreciates your business. So do the power and phone companies and the carpet cleaners. Then we'll probably need a blood pressure study of people all chipper and how-ya-doin' cheery but secretly aspiring to punch someone out.

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