A couple days ago, I was sitting on the Brooklyn-bound R train, when I noticed an older man toting a food-filled wagon down the aisle of the subway. He started addressing the crowd, letting us know he’s part of a charity that feeds the hungry. At the mere sight of him, my fellow passengers clenched in anticipation of being asked for money. But what he said next made my whole day a little brighter:
“If you don’t have any cash, I do accept smiles. Smiles keep me motivated to keep doing what I do.”
Along with a few others, I happily gave him both a dollar and a smile. However, most people desperately avoided eye contact by aimlessly scrolling through their phones or acting as if he weren’t there.
New Yorkers are regularly asked for money but we are never asked for smiles. Smiling here is a cultural taboo, and I partly attribute this to the immense amount of suffering in this city. Whether it’s homelessness, addiction or mental illness, it is nearly impossible to travel within NYC without witnessing one of these. It is exhausting to constantly show empathy to these people and sometimes, it’s easier just to become numb to it. But when we are numb toward others, we close the door to our humanity and perpetuate social isolation.
The good news is that one of the easiest ways to break out of this is with an unexpected smile. As soon as we smile, everything seems a little bit lighter and life suddenly feels less serious. Not only that, but smiling itself has actually been proven to increase happiness. In a 2004 study by Robert Soussignan, undergraduate students who held a pencil in their mouths, forcing themselves to smile, overwhelmingly reported heightened levels of happiness after the experiment. What this means is that joy is not always the source of your smile. Sometimes smiling can be the source of your joy. So by sharing a smile with a stranger, not only are you making this city feel a little less lonely, but you are also creating joy for both parties involved.
Sometimes we wear a straight face for our own protection to avoid interaction with someone who feels threatening. This is especially true for women. It is also perfectly acceptable not to be happy all the time. As a woman, I feel a lot of pressure to smile in public for the sake of others, mainly for men. But it is crucial that we do not let this close our hearts to everyone else, who are average people like you and me, just seeking love and human connection.
So next time you accidentally lock eyes with a stranger, instead of darting your gaze elsewhere, try giving them a smile. If the first person doesn’t smile back, don’t be discouraged. We’ve all been conditioned to keep to ourselves and it may have just caught them off guard. But for those who do return the grin, it’s always mutually beneficial. You never know what someone is going through, and showing a little love can send a huge message:
We are not as alone as we often feel; life is not as serious as we tend to believe; and we are far more alike than we are different because we will always be connected by our humanness.
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