The Benefit of Distinguishing Perception From Reality
Going For Smiles Story #13
I started Going For Smiles (and Happiness367 before it, in 2016, which you can read about here) so that handwritten smile cards could give everyone a chance to be kind to one another. These stories contribute to the goal of gathering 5,000 shared-smile stories so we can prove that little gestures can have a butterfly-effect impact.
In my last post, Random Acts of Kindness Aren’t As Random As We Think, we recognized that there are three groups of people in society: the genuinely happy, the invisibly unhappy and the visibly unhappy. We are so used to prioritizing our efforts toward people who are visibly unhappy or in need that we carry the same filter into our daily interactions as well. The problem is that this bias ignores the greater proportion of the population who mask their problems in a veil of positivity. The article identified a few of the reasons why people mask their emotions and issued a call to action for us all to extend the reach of our kind gestures to the broader segment of the population, which includes both ‘invisibly unhappy’ and ‘genuinely happy’. There are short-term and long-term benefits that can be realized from randomly dispersing kindness, and there is no time to waste!
The nation is currently honoring the passing and memory of Alan Krueger, former While House economist to Clinton and Treasure official under Obama.
As former-President Obama honored Krueger’s memory, he recalled how “Alan was someone who was deeper than numbers on a screen and charts on a page. He saw economic policy not as a matter of abstract theories, but as a way to make people’s lives better. Through it all, he had a perpetual smile and a gentle spirit — even when he was correcting you” (source: NBC News).
Some people may automatically start to assume Krueger silently suffered from depression, but it would only be speculation. And that doesn’t help. What would be helpful is for us to recognize that, regardless of the state of his mental health, he was part of the ‘invisibly unhappy’ segment of society. Unfortunately, this large population of people are frequently overlooked since they appear to be resilient and strong, and not in need of kind gestures or support. Clearly, perceptions do not always match reality, and there are a multitude of reasons why people might not show their true emotions. We have learned this lesson time and time again, from celebrities and from less famous people walking alongside us. 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 making random acts of kindness truly random, and offering simple daily encouragements to even the happiest people in our family, network, and neighborhood.
Story #13: “You look great — it’s like you’re glowing”
Most of the stories I write about highlight the smiles I share with people I meet, or randomly cross paths with on the street. But this next story gets personal. I am one of those genuinely happy people, and even though it may sometimes surprise my family and friends when I experience weakness or doubt, I’m thankful that they are attune to my emotions and that I can open up to them. Hopefully this story will encourage you to offer kindness regardless of appearances, and either lean on those you trust or open up to gestures from people outside your network.
While picking up lunch in the cafeteria at work, I noticed a colleague named Lucy whom I hadn’t seen in about two weeks.
“You look great — it’s like you’re glowing”, was one of the first things she said as we greeted each other.
“Well, it’s nice to hear I look like that now… but this morning I cried for the first time in 2 years😅.”
The last time I teared-up, not even cried, was when I told my amazing former-manager that I was moving to a different company. But these recent tears were not because of sadness — they were full of frustration. A trend had been emerging at work where all my projects, even those which received senior approval, were pushing up against barriers. Like many of you who are reading this, I’m a self-starter and refuse to get boxed in, but it’s hard to always be fighting uphill battles. The frustration compounds when I know the accomplishment high-water-marks that I have reached at other companies. But the metaphoric ‘straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back’ came from a manager who has historically been supportive of my projects. During an 8am meeting, he unexpectedly started putting up new barriers on a project I was really passionate about. Despite the strength I showed in the meeting, I quickly found a hidden place afterwards and let big wet tears of frustration roll down my cheeks. After a few minutes I called my boyfriend and leaned on him for support. That all happened before 9am on a Thursday.
It wasn’t until around 12:30pm that I ran into Lucy. She works in a different department and knows me to be a smiling and energizing person.
Maybe the bias of the smiling person she knows me to be influenced her perspective of how I looked. Or maybe that cry, and pep talk from my boyfriend, really did relieve so much tension that a calmer glow emerged.
Either way, I consider Lucy a new friend and I wanted to be open about how a usually-smiling and genuinely happy person can have a terrible day, too. As expected, she was sympathetic and appreciated that I let her see the real Andi. Seeing her reaction inspired me to share the experience on Instagram as well, and it was very rewarding to receive encouraging responses. For example, one friend commented, “I think you were being very selfless by sharing your story. Many of us are too prideful to show vulnerability, but you chose to inspire, thank you.”
The story fortunately has a happy ending since that experience motivated me to communicate to my managers that the hurdles are becoming unmanageable. They have started ameliorating the obstacles, and part of me wishes I spoke up sooner! But I know many of us try to fix things ourselves first, and the confidence to speak up was largely thanks to my supportive boyfriend, parents and friends.
Even though I was able to turn a difficult day into an inspiring story, it’s important to highlight that bad days happen and it’s okay. It’s not a sign of a faulty state of mind or weakness. It just happens.
Recognizing and accepting our emotions is the first step, but the difference is how efficiently we re-center ourselves and what methods we use. I would like to unequivocally advocate for human connection as the way to help us through sadness (and encourage us during happiness).
Please don’t cast me off yet; I know self-help industry generally advocates for turning inwards, and it can be harder to find the person or people who you can turn to. But I don’t wish to advocate for the self-help industry, and I have seen first-hand the power of human connection. Do you have at least one person who you can always lean on? Do you have different people who you turn to depending on the occasion? Are you self-reliant? Regardless which question you answered yes to, I would still encourage you to seek human connection since support doesn’t need to always come from family and friends — it can come from teachers, colleagues and even strangers.
The best gift we can give ourselves is the openness to recognize and accept support in whatever form it may manifest.
Dr. Susan David, an award-winning Harvard psychologist, said during her TED talk, “my eighth grade English teacher fixed me with burning blue eyes as she handed out blank notebooks. She said write what you’re feeling. Tell the truth. Write like nobody is reading.” The experience opened Dr. David to experience a life of authentic emotions, but the core lesson that I take away is how a human connection with her teacher changed her life in ways that turning inwards never would have.
Allow kindness to reach you. Recognize it in even the most unexpected of places. When possible, turn towards the people or people who can offer a shoulder.
And when you have kindness to give, allow it to penetrate perception. Share it randomly. You never know who you will touch in just the right moment. It could be lifesaving.
There are countless untold stories of kindness in the world. If you’d like to share yours, email email@example.com. I hope you always find a reason to smile!
Random Acts of Kindness Aren’t As Random As We Think
The delusion that diverts empathy away from the invisible majority