Chain of Smiles that No One Owns

How the ‘ownership principle’ influences our psychology of permission

Front and Back of Going For Smiles card

Children are taught from a young age, “don’t touch what isn’t yours!” This might lead children to think that ownership is absolute: what’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine. “Sharing is caring” still rests upon the ownership principle. As we grow up, how many of us learn that not all things are owned and some things just exist for all of us to enjoy?

Ironically, for Going For Smiles (and Happiness367, before it) to accomplish its goal of enabling people to show their kindness by sharing smiles, the ownership principle represents a hurdle. I didn’t realize how relevant the hurdle is until a friend, who was hearing about the smiles project for the first time, asked, “so you’re looking for people who steal?!” I thought he was kidding! But there was some seriousness in his voice, which made me wonder how many other people might have a similar perception. But the thing is…

It’s not stealing if no one owns it. Going For Smiles is built upon the hope that no one person will take ownership of a smile card. Ideally, each person will hold onto it for as long as it takes for the card to make them smile, reflect on the good things that happened to them that day, and hopefully be inspired to do a small act of kindness. For some people the cycle may take 10 min or 1 hour, for others it may take a day or two. Regardless of the time frame, the hope is that each card will be passed along, either by being directly handed to someone or left in another public place. Passing it along, and not taking ownership, is how we’ll share the good vibes! It’s how we’ll give ourselves a chance to show the kindness that is inside of us, but we don’t always know how to express. It’s how smile stories can add up to our goal of 5,000 shared smile stories. We’re all part of a chain of smiles; We’re not owners of the chain of smiles.


In the months before Going For Smiles went live, you would have found my boyfriend, a few friends, and I excitedly brainstorming how to revamp Happiness367. Everyone’s project-manager mindset was in overdrive as we thought about the workflow and asked ourselves: why would someone pick up the card; what will they do once they pick it up; what are we looking to accomplish, etc. At one point I felt myself separate from the conversation so as to enjoy what was happening: Back in 2016, I always spoke of Happiness367 in the “we” form because I did not want to take ownership; now in 2018, Going For Smiles was a collective effort even before it launched! Significantly more thought was going into it also. For Happiness367, the launch was as simple as talking about it with some family and friends, then setting up an Instagram account, and buying index cards, sharpies, stickers and papers clips. The only goal was for people to smile when they least expected it, and the only call-to-action on the card was “Share Your #Happiness367”. But now in 2018, the collective wisdom of my boyfriend and friends, and our clear goal to reach 5,000 shared smile stories, was already enough to make me smile.

My thoughts returned to the table while my boyfriend was saying, “what if we write ‘PICK ME UP’ on the top of the card?” One of our friends exclaimed, “that’s good!! And we can add ‘I am a’ in small letters in front of ‘PICK ME UP’”. We all agreed that “I am a PICK ME UP” would be a helpful addition to convey the first step of the workflow to whomever found the card. But we also believed that it was more of a nice-to-have element and depended on the design of the card. But now that “user testing” of the cards has been in full swing for a week, it is clear that the phrase “PICK ME UP” is a need-to-have design element due to the ownership principle hurdle.

Three days after the first smile card was released into the world, still no hashtags have been shared. It was surprising to not receive a response. January 2, 2016 was the first day that I released Happiness367 cards into the world, and a post to the hashtag was made within the first hour, followed by three more posts later that day. Curious to see how people might be interacting with the Going For Smile cards, I decided the best thing to do is to simply observe. I coyly clipped a card to a mall map in the WTC Oculus (in NYC), and situated myself on a bench a few hundred feet away to watch. A few people walked over to the card; one person took a photo of it; but dozens of others just looked at the map as if the smile card with an adorable dog wasn’t in their field of vision. Not a single person picked it up. After about 5 minutes of quiet observation I looked to my left and noticed a brunette woman scrolling through Instagram. “Excuse me,” I said while leaning towards her a little to get her attention. “Would you like to hear something interesting?” I asked enthusiastically while she turned towards me, swiped out of Instagram, and removed her airpods. I continued, “you see that sign over there? I found a card with a sweet quote on it somewhere else, and directions on the back suggested I bring it somewhere new. So… I clipped it to the map there and am looking to see if anyone else will pick it up!” “Oh, nice,” she said while hesitating a smile. Still hoping to break the ice, I showed her the photo of the card on my phone and asked, “do you think you would notice this if you passed by it?” Without missing a beat, she responded, “maybe, but I would never pick it up… I would assume someone left it there for people to see. It’s not mine to take, it doesn’t belong to me.” And there it was. The ownership principle. My friend’s question “so you’re looking for people who steal?!” rang loudly in my ears. It was a surprising realization and made me wonder why this didn’t seem to be a concern back in 2016 when Happiness367 was going. Times change, and fortunately my user experience recon mission was a success since we have added “YOU FOUND ME — TAKE ME WITH YOU” and “LET’S SHARE SMILES TOGETHER” to each card. As we expected, it is always important to be nimble and iterate on your “product” (AKA smile cards) in a way that is responsive to the behavior of the people you are looking to reach. Going For Smiles is a collective effort and we hope the new text will help people feel free to take action.

One of the most valuable parts of Going For Smiles is the conversations and observations that I otherwise would not have. Learning about people’s stories and how we all think is fascinating! The conversation with the brunette girl and with my friend taught me something valuable about how the ownership principle might be influencing human psychology: many of us are inclined to look for permission before we act. This behavior may be observed in our interactions with the world around us and with the way we behave personally.

Think about the last time you attended a meeting or an event, introduced yourself to someone new, publicly asked a question after a presentation, picked up something that wasn’t “yours”, and any other variety of daily experiences. In what situations did you look for permission from others vs. give yourself permission vs. feel the freedom of action without permission constraints? I would love to hear from you to help inform my future post about observations on the psychology of permission.

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