Building community in a changing world

July 1, 2020

Smiling at Strangers

During this lockdown, I’ve been smiling at a lot of strangers on my long walks with our dog. I absolutely love it.

It reminds me of my annual February trips to Siesta Key in Florida, where walking on the flat compact white sand – voted the #1 beach in the continental US – is a pastime that many enjoy. It’s essentially a two-lane highway of walking along the water. Those of us from the North are so happy to be in a warm climate that we can’t help but smile at strangers.

This NPR piece about the ‘science of smiling’ debunks the theory that smiling provides a positive feedback loop of happiness. The ‘smiling theory’ maintains that when our smiling muscles contract, they fire a signal back to the brain, stimulating our reward system, and further increasing our level of happy hormones, or endorphins. So when our brain feels happy, we smile; when we smile, our brain feels happier.

But the NPR report states otherwise. Here’s an excerpt:

But researchers are now finding that this phenomenon may be more complicated than they once thought. A recent study that reviewed around 50 years of data, including the results of nearly 300 experiments testing the facial feedback theory, has found that if smiling boosts happiness, it’s only by a tiny bit.

After crunching all the numbers, the researchers say their results suggest that if 100 people smiled — all else equal among them — only about seven might expect to feel happier than if they hadn’t smiled.

My own personal feedback bears this out. Producing a forced smile doesn’t do much for me. At least not every time. But sometimes it does make a difference. And if I’m mindful – really paying attention – to whether a stranger returns a smile, I get a big boost out of that if they do. I guess it makes me feel like I’ve just made a difference in that person’s life – if even for a moment. Even though that stranger may have forced a smile that bore no fruit for them, the fact that it made me happy did indeed have an impact on someone. Me.

Interestingly, when the SEC moved its DC headquarters about fifteen years ago, someone decided to split up the Divisions physically with the notion that people from those different areas of concentration would start to mingle. The opposite happened. Because folks assumed anyone they were walking by in the halls were from another group, people stopped socializing altogether. Stopped saying hello. So that plan backfired and the SEC rejiggered the floor plan within six months to get like-minded people back together.