“Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

Crickets…

I must have said “good morning” 20 times during my bicycle ride with my husband yesterday. I got a few waves from the more than 50 cyclists riding in the opposite direction during our 26 miles, but my nods and gestures went mostly unreturned.

Honestly, I think Connecticut is one of the most beautiful places to ride bicycles, thanks to the rolling hills and historic homes and landscapes. And Sunday mornings are abuzz in our town with joggers, walkers and cyclists. It’s wonderful to see all the people enjoying the sunshine, the outdoors and the gorgeous scenery. So with all the beautiful surroundings, why is everyone so grumpy?

I have had the same experience at the dog park since the start of COVID. Before the days of masks and distancing, people were friendly…they would say hello…they would even chat while our dogs sniffed each other from top to tail. But since the onset of COVID, not only do they move to stay 10 to 15 feet apart when we pass—well beyond the six feet suggested for even indoor situations—they avert their eyes. They won’t even look at one another, let alone smile, nod or say hello. But let me correct myself. On occasion, they do get closer…in order to chastise other people for not wearing masks—when outside in a park!

Really, people…you’re not going to get COVID from looking at someone, let alone smiling at them. In fact, you actually may increase your protection against sickness by being friendly…but more on that in a moment.

There is a joint movement that has been started by a group of doctors and business people called #FlattenTheFear. The message? The media and social media have instilled in the public an unhealthy level of fear, which, in turn, is inhibiting our judgment and perspective when it comes to getting out of isolation and returning to work and school. Multiple reports have documented the associated emotional and physical damage as a result of quarantine, and yet the message “run for your life” is still being broadcast loud and proud.

Just as every rainstorm has become an “emergency weather alert”  recommending that everyone take cover from the potential flash floods and dangerous winds that could destroy property…now, COVID has become a disease of mythic proportion. It is reported to be so dangerous that, even though the sickness rate among children is less than 2% and the overall mortality  rate is less than 0.1%, the experts use “what if” statements to keep people afraid and children locked in their homes.

Meanwhile, experts have said repeatedly that the odds of contracting COVID from passing someone casually outside in the fresh air  is extremely low unless someone coughs, sneezes or spits directly on you. Walking along a path and calmly breathing…and waving and smiling…will not give you COVID.

There is, however, something that this unrealistic fear is doing to you—it is depleting your immune system. Yes, you heard me, it is reducing your ability to fight the disease.

With fear comes the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Fear and its associated stress actually decrease the production of lymphocytes—the white blood cells that your body uses to fight infection. According to Alane Daugherty, PhD, codirector of the Mind and Heart Research Lab at California Polytechnic State University, it is estimated that we have 60,000 to 80,000 negative thoughts a day, and each one of those thoughts adds to your cortisol levels, which depletes your body’s natural defenses.

Attention all you grumps out there…you’re increasing your chances of getting sick.

Want to build up your defenses? Say hello to me! Smile when we pass. Look someone in the eye and nod your head in acknowledgment.

Smiling is a magical, free drug. It spurs the release of two of our “happy hormones”—dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine makes us feel happy. Serotonin stabilizes our mood and reduces stress levels. And guess what? Both of these hormones actually help strengthen your immune system. Serotonin, in particular, has been found to increase the number and effectiveness of natural killer cells—one of the critical warriors in our immune system’s defenses against viruses and germs of all kinds.

Human connection is also a free, magical drug. While I don’t personally know most of the people I pass at the park or on my bicycle, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a feel-good moment of human connection when we interact. Humans need interaction and connection, and the lack of it has been proven time and again to harm our health and deplete our immune systems. After nearly five months of social isolation, we all are in need of every ounce of human connection that we can collect. A few years ago, I ran my first 10 K ever and found myself  lagging toward the end. A stranger came up behind me and simply said “you can do it.” What a wonderful act of kindness.  It was all I needed to get myself back into gear and finish the race strong.

Honestly, my friends, we all need smiles and connection. The fear in your eyes when we pass is sad to me but harmful to you. While you’re hoping and praying that you don’t get sick, let a smile be your umbrella from this storm.

Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast,  where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.