5 Minute Read

The first time I conducted, what I now affectionately call “The Smile Project,” I was sitting on the outdoor patio of a cafe in Lagos, Portugal. It was a January afternoon earlier this year. Picture this: blue sky, light breeze, the sounds of the sea waves nearby, and twenty or so tables full of people speaking a smattering of languages.

Two waiters in particular caught my attention. Perhaps it was the contrast between them, perhaps it was because they both waited on me, but I found myself observing them as they worked the patio. I watched the first gentleman chat and joke with patrons, smiling often, even when he was clearly annoyed by customers, bantering with them and enjoying his work and the customers that engaged with him.

I noticed the second gentleman never smiled, looked quite worn down, defeated, moving slowly through the tables, engaging very little with people outside of their orders, and rarely making eye contact. He looked forlorn and sad; it touched my heart. In that moment, I wanted more than anything to try and make him smile. And so the “Smile Project” was born.

That afternoon, I sat happily on the patio enjoying the sunshine for several hours. During that time, I deliberately smiled at the second waiter, every time I could catch his eye as he passed my table. It was interesting to observe the evolution of his reactions. The first time it seemed like he didn’t even see or register the smile. The next few times he looked surprised. Slowly, after several smiles, he began to catch my eye in return. Eventually, he grinned in response. Then the last few times he returned the smiles fully, even initiating a few times. I noticed he also began to engage more with the other patrons.

When I paid my bill and turned to leave, I saw him across the cafe and caught his eye, smiling one last time. He walked over and hugged me good-bye. It was a warm, sincere, strong and lasting embrace and he kissed me on the cheek. His whole demeanor had changed over the course of the afternoon. We barely spoke a single word, but we had exchanged numerous smiles and formed a connection. When I left he was smiling fully and sincerely at me, his head held high, moving briskly among his tables.

I experienced something profound that day. Though I didn’t understand it at the time, I needed that exchange – that hug – as much as he needed those smiles. I had been traveling alone for three weeks. My marriage had ended a few months prior and I was in the midst of a three month traveling adventure to give myself time to grieve and heal. I awoke that morning needing a break from the grief and solitude. I went for a walk on the beach and spotted the cafe. I noticed that the patrons seemed like a mix of nationalities and I yearned to sit outside amongst the various people and hopefully to feel less alone.

I didn’t understand the power of the experience until a few weeks later as I read the following passage by Jeff Brown from his book Love it Forward:”

“If there is any need that is perpetually unmet on this planet, it is the need to feel seen. To feel seen in our humanity, in our vulnerability, in our beautiful imperfection. When we are held safe in that, a key turns inside of our hearts, freeing us from isolation, transforming our inner world. If there is anything we can offer each other, it is the gift of sight. “I see you” – perhaps the most important words we can utter to another. I see you….”

As I read the passage, the meaning of it washed over me and I thought back to that day on the patio in Portugal. I reflected on the events, the experience, how I felt during and afterward. I went to that patio seeking connection and – through the Smile Project – I found it. Even more importantly though, I discovered how powerful it is to feel seen and to feel connected to someone else – even if only briefly – and how easily all of that can be achieved through something as simple as a warm, sincere smile.

I have conducted the Smile Project in numerous cities, countries and with people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities….it works every time. The number of smiles required varies, with as few as 4 and as many as 15, but eventually it always makes a difference. Occasionally I conduct mini Smile Projects, catching the eye of a stranger and smiling fully only one time. My favorite place to do this is in busy transit centers, like on subway or airport escalators, when I am descending and someone else is ascending nearby. It lights me up inside to feel the smile take root in the other person and see their face blossom in response.

I am always surprised by the incredible transformation that occurs in each person and the way the connection makes me feel. I enjoy it so much that now, whenever I feel blue, I deliberately share a smile with as many strangers as necessary until my blues fade away. Not only does it brighten their day, but it brightens mine.

A smile transcends all barriers regardless of language, background, beliefs, or values. A smile can be shared, received and understood, with nothing else required and it takes only seconds to deliver. In terms of a time-to-value ratio, a heartfelt smile, delivered successfully to someone in need of feeling seen and appreciated, is priceless.

What might happen if we each made the effort every day to positively impact one person’s day with a smile? What might happen if we did it multiple times a day? How might those ripples spread outward and onward? In a world where people are increasingly busy and often feel disconnected, when depression and anxiety are on the rise and stories of violence and discord seem to multiply exponentially across the news channels, we need to feel seen and connected more than ever.

I encourage you to join me in the Smile Experiments – both the mini Smile Project (one Smile) and the larger Smile Project (multiple Smiles until you notice a change). And if you happen to find yourself having a challenging day, consider pausing, putting your electronics away, and trying this unique, but powerful, method of connecting with someone else. You might be surprised by the results.

I’d love to hear from you and to hear about your experiences in the comments below. And as always, you can email me anytime.

Until then, keep smiling and pay attention to the ripples for you and everyone else. It matters, you matter, smiles matter.

Photo credits: Jaime Lee Colyer