The delusion that diverts empathy away from the invisible majority
When’s the last time you thought of offering a kind gesture to someone who already appears happy?
I’m going to let that question linger for a moment and circle back to it later. First, let’s talk about something that’s more familiar: the notion of how to respond to conspicuous signals of need. It’s interesting to see how the idea has withstood the test of time:
~ “See mean people for what they really are — wounded and tiny and probably threatened. Frightened mice masquerading as roaring lions.” (2013 article)
~ “You don’t always know why they have been mean to you or why they have said or done certain things. Assumptions made about others can be false, and most of the time they are.” (2015 article)
~ “You will never know exactly what someone is going through in life, even if they are your best friend. People will hide their true emotions at times, and it is your responsibility to still be kind to them.” (2017 article)
While it’s surely a common refrain, I worry that its repetition has influenced our ability to spread kindness.
Specifically, I have observed how it has narrowed our criteria about who can benefit from kindness and shared smiles.
When I hand a GoingForSmiles card to someone new, I sometimes receive the question: “What do I do next?” followed by “How do I decide who to give it to?” On one occasion, I met someone who was excited to receive a smile card and enthusiastic about the project’s purpose. “I know exactly who to give this to! And I’m seeing her this weekend!” she exclaimed.
Naturally, I was eager to check in a week later about the friend’s reaction to receiving the card. “I didn’t end up giving it to her. She looked happy again, so I didn’t think she needed it anymore... I gave it to another guy instead because he was having a tough day.” You might be surprised by the response, but by the time I heard it, I was already keenly aware of this trend.
We are so used to prioritizing our efforts toward people who need support, or are indisputably underprivileged, that we carry the same filter into our daily interactions as well.
The problem is that this bias ignores the much greater proportion of the population who mask their problems in a veil of positivity.
“The stigma is a problem because it leaves people feeling they are not worthy of help if they don’t fit that ‘look,’” wrote Milly Smith in an effort to educate society on the disassociation between appearance and mental health. While her message is powerful for people dealing with clinical mental health, I think it relates equally to the ‘invisibly unhappy’ segment of the population who can so easily fly under the radar.
People mask their emotions for reasons such as:
We all process information and show emotions differently, so people have different thresholds for what qualifies as a difficult situation.
- Social Norms
There are certain social norms that require us to put on a brave face, even if in more private settings we are honest about negative emotions.
- Self-Help Industry
It introduced the belief that we must be positive, that happiness is the goal, and achieving happiness or success depends heavily on our mindset.
It begs the question, when there are many factors underlying our emotional masks, how can we tell who in the crowd would benefit from a stranger’s kindness?
Susan David, an award-winning Harvard psychologist, alluded to society’s reaction to negative emotions during her 2017 TED Talk, and appearances on Megyn Kelly Today and Lewis Howes’ The School of Greatness podcast. She reflected on how, as a teenager, she hid grief behind a veil of positivity because “we live in a world that values getting on with it and relentless positivity.” She highlighted how the “tyranny of positivity” acts as a hurdle for true advancements and, in her book Emotional Agility, she elaborated on why it’s okay to let yourself feel bad and grow as a result.
The notion that “negative feelings can sometimes be good” is also echoed by other psychologists, such as David Feldman on the website Psychology Today. In the book Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich took issue with the way “positive thinking” tries to “transform breast cancer into a rite of passage,” and the perception that “a ‘positive attitude’ is supposedly essential to recovery.” Barbara advocates for “vigilant realism” and asks, “how can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in?”
I agree that it’s okay to let yourself feel badly, and that we need to be realistic about our circumstances. I try to emulate this behavior, even though I’m “the smiles girl”, and recently shared a personal story about a stressful experience in the link below.
But telling people to take off their masks is easier said than done, and society, with its preference for sugar-coating, isn’t likely ready for everyone to wear their emotions on their sleeves. If we want to encourage people to be real with their emotions, then the solution starts with outreach from the givers rather than the receivers. A more feasible shift would be for people to more evenly distribute their kindness so that the large segment of invisibly unhappy people can receive support without needing to become so vulnerable.
So when was the last time you thought of offering a kind gesture to someone who appears (and very well may be) happy?
A few weeks ago, I shared the story of Padma, Suzy, and friends, as an example of sharing a smile with people who already appear happy. I approached Padma and her two friends in a Starbucks in response to their warm laughter, which prompted me to share a smile card with them. They were genuinely happy!
Padma then brought the card with her on a weekend retreat and passed it along to Suzy, a sweet woman she had seen in the past but had never interacted with. Suzy was receptive, and comfortable enough to take off her mask. “This is reaching me at exactly the right time,” Suzy explained. “No one really knows that I’m going through a bit of a rough patch, so I really appreciate you picking me to share this with.”
How One Smile Multiplied Across State Lines
Going For Smiles Story #3 — NYC to Chicago to Florida to ??
The point is that there are plenty of Suzy’s out there, but not enough Padma’s. When we evenly distribute kindness, our actions can promote a more empathetic society which may openly encourage everyone to be genuine about their emotions.
Though we may be tempted to ensure our finite energy is directed to people who absolutely need the help (i.e. 100% ‘hit rate’), we can have a greater collective impact by extending our reach to a broader segment of the population, one that includes both ‘invisibly unhappy’ and genuinely happy people.
In the short term, positive outcomes of randomly dispersing kindness would include:
1. Signal Boosting (worst case)
Energize genuinely happy people to continue the kind gestures, as they have the all-important added capacity to act outside of themselves.
2. Supporting people with and without masks (best case)
We can ensure that everyone who can benefit from kindness has an equal opportunity to receive it, regardless of their openness to being publicly vulnerable (and conforming to the stereotype of need). It’s possible that a small gesture can move these people to a path of healing, enabling them to pay it forward and kick off a virtuous cycle. Considering the scale of the invisibly unhappy segment in particular, they can become a powerful change agent for this movement.
And in the longer term:
3. Promoting a more understanding culture
If people receive support regardless of appearance, it will promote a more empathetic environment, in which the stigma around expressing negative emotions can start to erode.
Achieving this vision is a collective effort, which starts with individual choices made every day. In this spirit, I issue the following challenge:
- In a public place, look around you (if you see a smile card, pick it up!)
- Practice picking out a random person or two who you’d like to share a smile with or offer a kind gesture. Think about simple acts, like a compliment, letting someone go ahead of you in line, sharing a funny picture, carrying groceries, buying coffee (or, if you find one, passing along a smile card).
- Within the next 24 hours, follow through on at least one act of kindness, without discriminating based on appearance.
So we can reach our long-term goal, try to incorporate this challenge into your weekly routine, and inspire others to do the same.
As with anything, it gets easier the more you do it, you’ll feel a surge of dopamine, and you’ll see how truly random gestures can have outsized impacts on all people and society at large.
There are countless untold stories of kindness in the world. If you’d like to share yours, email firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you always find a reason to smile!
How Sharing Smiles Made Me Resilient, More Confident and Happier
When’s the last time you were turned down?