For eight hours straight, we walked around NYC and smiled at every person we came across. Could we make them smile in return? Could we bring a moment of happiness to a stranger’s day, just with a grin? It’s been said that smiling is contagious, and we wanted to test this theory out IRL. I’ll be honest: I had my doubts that this would do anything. But at worst, everyone would just think we were creepy.
Why is Mona Lisa one of the most famous paintings of all time? Sure, Leonardo waxed poetic oil on that shit, but really it’s because of her unique and mysterious smile. Smiling and laughing, what weird things. Everyone has heard the quote, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but if you turn on the news, you know there’s not much to laugh about in the world these days.
So why try smiling? I happen to be a very smiley person to begin with; I think I came out of the womb smiling. I read somewhere that babies start smiling in their sleep from the day they’re born. I smile all the time. I smile when I’m happy, I smile when I’m nervous, I smile to make myself feel better, and I smile to make others feel better. I think smiling helps calm me down. I also find people who smile a lot to be more attractive to me. When I was younger, my mom would always tell me to smile at people.
Scientists have backed up the claim that smiling is contagious: in experiments, people had difficulty frowning when they looked at other people who were smiling, and their muscles twitched into smiles on their own. Scientists also say that smiling can boost your immune system and relieve stress. Even forcing a smile can boost your mood. Smiling is like chocolate, it induces pleasure, it signals a reward, and it’s a fairly universal sign of happiness.
But what about when you can tell someone is faking a smile? Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the difference between genuine and fake smiles. In an interview in Wired magazine, psychology professor and author of Lip Service Marianne LaFrance says that some people are inclined to smile more, and that tends to indicate they have a more upbeat personality. LaFrance also points out that we learn early on when we should fake a smile; smiling is as much a social behavior as an expression of how we’re really feeling. For instance, if you are given a bad gift or you see someone you don’t really like, you still smile because it’s socially appropriate. Yet, when someone is by themselves, they don’t smile as much. (I’ve been testing out this theory, and I have to say that I’m always laughing and smiling when I’m by myself: when I’m at home watching a Seinfeld rerun, when I’m catching a Knicks game and Porzingis is killing it, when I’m checking out stupid Fallon clips on YouTube…).
I don’t believe the point of life is to be happy. That’s not the point of all this, for me. For me, the point is to find myself wherever I might be, at my best or at my worst.
But on the streets of New York City, people generally don’t smile. Don’t get me wrong, I hate that New Yorkers get such a bad rep about this. I’ve lived here for almost 12 years and I promise you the whole “New Yorkers aren’t nice” thing is a farce. It’s only when you’re outside that people seem mad or rude, mainly because we’re always in a rush! There are so many people, so many late trains, so much street traffic and construction, and so many tourists in your way that you’re always running late. So you might appear angry, and you definitely don’t have time to smile.
This past weekend Jessie and I went out on the streets of NYC and smiled at people for eight hours straight. We smiled at everyone that came our way: at people on the street, in shops and restaurants, at adults and kids and seniors, you name it. At one point, we both took turns standing on a busy corner smiling at people. It was weird. It felt unnatural. And people didn’t seem to respond the way we’d hoped! This whole argument about how smiling is contagious didn’t seem to apply at all, at least not for us. Maybe people felt our smiles were disingenuous? I have no idea, but no one really smiled back at us. People just looked at us like we were crazy, or flat out entirely ignored us. Even as Jessie, a super pretty girl, stood on the street corner alone, smiling at guys, nobody reacted! It was dumbfounding.
When no one returned the smiles, we came up with a different idea: What if, instead of smiling at people, we decided to frown at people? Would that make people smile? And so be it, when we frowned at people, everyone smiled and laughed back at us! We just kept frowning at people and people kept laughing. It was so peculiar, and also a nice change, considering we couldn’t get one person to smile at us all day.
While smiling is important, I don’t believe the point of life is to be happy. That’s not the point of all this, for me. For me, the point is to find myself wherever I might be, at my best or at my worst. If I can find and see myself for whoever I am at any given moment —and if I can accept that — then maybe I can grow. I'm fundamentally much more interested in using my life to find more “life.”
There is this story of a Chinese sage that I always think about. He was asked, “How shall we escape the heat?” He answered, “Go right into the middle of the fire.” Lately, I’ve definitely come out of whatever funk I was in during steps 5, 6, and 7. I still feel more emotional and sensitive to the world around me, but I also feel like I’m not letting it stick to me as much these days. By facing and living with the unknown a bit more, I’m able to be in front of the discomfort. And that makes me smile.
We'd love for you to participate in this 12-step journey with us. Step eleven is about making strangers smile, in whatever way you can. Comment below or tag #12kindsofkindness on social media and let us know your stories. We'd love to hear them!
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