“Every. Single. Day??” is the common response when I tell people about Happiness367. The emphatic staccato in their voice is accompanied by eyebrows arched into twin Mt. Everests. Presumably, I’d respond the same way if I learned of a native-New-Yorker who started a project that set out to make strangers smile. The smiles project entailed that, every single day, I wrote a new quote on index cards and then left the cards in random places around New York City (and sometimes London, UK) for people to discover when they least expected it!
“Why 367?” they’d ask next, after overcoming their shock and awe. “Because 2016 was a leap year,” I’d respond, “and I added a day for continuity since we should always be happy, not just for a year.” Most would have an ‘aha’ moment, and then have follow-ups like: “I wish I would have found a card!”, “See… this is why we’re friends!”, “That’s so amazing — the world needs more of that”, “I wish you were still doing the smiles project today!”, “why did you stop?!” Reactions like these are what inspired me to reflect on Happiness367 and develop a new smiles project that we hope will remind us of the goodness in the world despite the divisive messages. The new initiative is called GoingForSmiles and the smile cards will encourage connection with friends and strangers alike, while also keeping a history of the kindness they inspired.
THE ORIGIN STORY — WHY ARE YOU SO HAPPY?
It all started with a question that people from different walks of life would ask me: “Why are you so happy?” But they didn’t ask me with a smile. They asked with a combination of frustration and bewilderment. Initially, I shrugged it off, but just like a nail that ultimately goes through a wall with repeated strokes of the hammer, over time the question penetrated my mind. I started questioning my natural state as an optimist. I say it’s “natural” because, as psychology studies show, personality is ingrained in our DNA. Starting from when I was a baby, I would always greet people with a smile; as an adult, I was the only person in my new hire class to demonstrate the “caring” personality trait as part of an assessment called Talent+. However, these traits weren’t developed during a life of blissful ignorance: I was bullied as a child, heard my parents fight, was relieved when they got divorced, am shackled by college debt, and my first work experience left me feeling empty inside. Despite all these negative experiences, the first thing that pierced the veil of my positive outlook was the question “why are you so happy?” My natural optimism turn to feelings of passive melancholy and the change was noticeable to family and friends… until the end of 2015. As the colorful autumnal leaves shook free from their trees and gave way to a confused December in NYC (it was 60 degrees on Christmas Eve!), my brain shook itself up:
“There are so many millions of people out there… Where are they going? What are they thinking? What’s the last thing that made them smile or frown?” I wondered while staring out my midtown apartment window one night, watching the lights twinkle and hearing car horns blaring. “I don’t know any of their stories. Similarly, the people who asked me “why are you so happy?” have their own stories. Maybe it was easier for them to rain on my positivity rather than reflecting on their own feelings… even though they’re the exact people who could use a smile! I wonder why I let my self-confidence wane? I wonder… what’s the impact of a shared smile?”
#Happiness367 was born on that evening. It lived in the physical world, since that is where true life happens, and minimally connected to the digital through Instagram posts. The external goal was to genuinely make people smile when they least expected it, and to make them laugh and want to share that laughter with others. By accomplishing that goal, I would also accomplish my internal goal of sowing this newfound confidence back into my caring DNA.
DAY 1 TO DAY 367 — WHAT’S THE IMPACT OF A SHARED SMILE?
Every day from January 1, 2016 to January 1, 2017, inclusive, I wrote an inspiring or funny quote on a colorful index card, clipped a smiley face sticker to it, and left it in a random place in the city. The Happiness367 Instagram page read: “Find one: keep it, share it, or leave it elsewhere to brighten another’s smile! Find balance in every day.” Every time someone shared a new post to #Happiness367 on Instagram, I got a dopamine rush and my own smile would match that of the yellow sticker I attached to the cards. With the dopamine levels still high, I would comment on each post. On a personal level, think about it — what would your perspective be like if you shared smiles every day?! The answer to that question is the reason #Happiness367 ended up being as much a personal growth experiment as a social experiment. But the most rewarding parts of seeking to make people smile, and the reasons I was able to start 2017 with feelings of tranquility, warmth, acceptance and accomplishment, are the multitudes of memorable stories rooted in the interactions with my fellow humans. These stories, which will be featured as topics of some of the upcoming posts, communicate the impact of a smile on a diversity of people: people who are running to catch a train… are on a vacation… have mental health disorders… are just out for a walk in the park with their dogs or their friends… were leaving work feeling like deflated balloons… and people who are also trying to make strangers smile and remember to be happy. As I wrote on Day 69 of Happiness367, “everyone smiles in the same language.”
GoingForSmiles — HOW FAR CAN A SHARED SMILE GO?
The smile card from day 218 embodied the goal of Happiness367: “you can’t help everyone, but you can help someone.” The smile cards can be tracked digitally using either#GoingForSmiles or visiting www.GoingForSmiles.com, and we hope will encourage a butterfly-effect of kindness to emerge. The name is apt because:
Not only are we going for smiles by making people feel good when they find a card or read stories about others who did the same, but the cards will be going for miles, since we hope people will disperse them more broadly as they go about their lives.
Who knows, maybe a card will go on a flight or cross-country trip and spread smiles not just around New York City, but the world as well.
One way to work towards this goal is to root our foundation in the lessons learned from (positive) psychologists such as Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, Barbara Fredrickson, author of Love 2.0 and advocate for a variety of positive emotions, Sara Algoe, who studies gratitude interventions, William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose, and others. Martin Seligman teaches that optimism is a skill that can be learned, and that the dopamine rush we all experience after an act of kindness towards others means we are all “hard wired” for altruism. That is why we hope to imbue a human connection in each GoingForSmiles card by digitally logging its physical travels using social media, making it possible to understand its rich history and the legacy to be upheld by the next person to encounter it. We believe that inspiring others to be stewards of a message of smiles will have a far-reaching, positive, ripple effect, especially in these divisive times. Can you help us share some smiles? “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.”
SOURCES & REFERENCES:
1. Why You Are Who You are: Investigations Into Human Personality — Book by Mark R Leary
2. Examples of the different stories that will be featured in future posts:
· The couple in Brooklyn roasting company who shared the first #happiness367 card
· The “happy 2016” chalk circle that someone else drew on the ground in Washington Square Park
· The woman from England who proactively volunteered dozens of tourist recommendations when she realized I was visiting London
· The elderly woman on the subway with a big bracelet that said “Never, Never, Never Give Up”
· The businessman who was running to catch a train but also stopped long enough to pick up the card “BElieve in YOUrself”, twice!
· My mom who has gone through multiple periods of unhappiness, but found her smile by helping me think of quotes and sometimes distributing them, too
· My colleagues who stuck the smiley sticker to their phone handset or their computer monitor
· The homeless man walking along 5th ave who stole the smile from my face by making “stabbing” motions towards my liver
· The woman who commented on my Instagram post from day 139: “I FOUND THAT!!! And believe me when I saw it was a much-needed burst of positivity. I had a rough day, left the office, and found that nice note. Thank you!!”
· The friends and family who helped me think of what to write on a card so as to lift one more person’s smile, along with my own in the process
3. Episodes from “The Psychology Podcast”
4. Foundations of Positive Psychology with Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania, Coursera Online