I smiled at 20 strangers today and this is what happened
-Oct 3, Hannah Hargrave, Living -
Perhaps you have always considered yourself as pretty high on the smiley spectrum and regularly dish out toothy grins for the postman, parents in the playground or a familiar face in the supermarket? So when, in honour of National Smile Day, Hannah Hargrave decided to smile at 20 complete strangers in a day, she thought: ‘How hard can it be?’ – she tells Lumity what happened.
Studies have shown time and time again that a smile is so much more than just a facial expression. From reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and building your immunity, the benefits of turning the frown upside down just keep coming.
With all that knowledge I was excited to spend my day purposefully picking up the corners of my mouth to smile at strangers to find out how they’d react and how it would make me feel.
Starting the day with a smile
I eased myself into the day by promising I’d smile at some new parents in the playground. I hovered – perhaps a little awkwardly – at the gates until a newbie arrived. I swiftly kissed my daughter on her head before gently pushing her into the playground and turned to the lady next to me doing the same to her child. I smiled a big at her … she turned, looked me almost dead on in the eye and walked away without so much as smirk. I convinced myself, she didn’t see me and not to be demoralised by one non smile I quickly followed it up by grinning at a toddler in a push chair. He smiled back, then stuck out his tongue and I swiftly put ‘Misery Mum’ to the back of my mind and decided to start over.
Diffusing anger with a smile
When you’re shopping with a three-year-old, dressed as a scarecrow, who has their own tiny wooden shopping trolley you expect a few smiles. For me it’s the only way to stop him commandeering my full-sized metal cart and smashing into the neatly stacked displays. For onlookers it’s just plain adorable.
My son brought smiles to plenty of people’s faces, but I noticed most of them didn’t actually look up at me, until that is, he accidentally ran over the toes of an older lady and knocked the side of her trolley too.
Quickly her expression changed from a smile to a glare and she tutted at my son and glared at me clearly ready to berate me for not controlling him. But before the words could exit her mouth and I could jump to my defence, I remembered my task for the day and smiled before calmly saying, ‘I’m sorry’.
I did wonder if the smile would rile her, or if she’d think I was mocking the situation. But killing the while debacle with kindness actually worked.
Before I knew it SHE was apologising for making a big deal out of it and for scaring him. SHE was smiling back at me and even bent down to talk to my son! Was it the smile, or the simple sorry? I’m not sure. But we did all leave smiling – and my son even got a lollipop out of it too.
Smiling to relieve stress
Supermarket shopping makes me a little harassed and uptight especially with the children in tow, but on this occasion I can honestly say – with the exception of the incident above – it was calmer and less stressful than normal and I think my son enjoyed it more too.
I cheerfully smiled at the man who appeared to have the exact same shopping list as I did, bumping into him in practically every single aisle I traipsed down. ‘Hello again’ my somewhat forced smile said.
Instead of averting my eyes from the fellow mum in the wine aisle for fear she’d think I was actually going to drink my ‘cooking wine’ at 10am, I confidently locked eyes and gave her a smile and she returned it, along with a humorous ‘cheers’ action.
The cashier appeared overjoyed to have a customer smile at her and ask how she was rather than beeping through the produce of a woman – like the one in front of me – who had spent the entire transaction with a ‘phone glued to her ear.
And finally there was the security guard who always looks so incredibly bored, who barely so much as raised his head when the alarm sounded, even if it looked like someone was wheeling out a trolley full of stolen goods. I caught his eye, gave him a whopper of a smile and his face – which at first displayed utter confusion – lit up. He stood up straighter, rolled back his shoulders, puffed out his chest and grinned back. I’m aware maybe he thought the smile meant something else, but it was amazing to see how this one cheerful expression could completely alter someone’s body language.
How smiling calms you down
In the packed car park I didn’t beep my horn, or slowly bubble with rage at the SUV which had gone the wrong way down the ‘mother and child’ section forcing me to wait 10 minutes while she did her best impression of ‘Austin Powers’ 40 point turn to get out. I just smiled at her. She instantly seemed to relax and the slow process quickened somewhat without a bumped bumper or clenched fist in sight. She mouthed a very grateful ‘thank you’ and smiled at me before driving away and I smiled at myself for my patience.
A smile can reduce anxiety
I’d purposely picked a busy day to fulfill this smiley task because I’m not sure I’d have learned much from smiling at the same people I smile at every day in the tiny village I live in. So, after the school run and the supermarket, I was hospital bound. By husband had unfortunately broken his back over the summer and it was his final X-ray after 3 long months in a constricting back brace to find out if he was healed. Hospitals can be a somber place. I knew I couldn’t wonder around grinning like a cheshire cat at people who might be grieving or waiting on life changing news. But as I sat in the waiting room nervously alongside my husband, intermittently flicking between the news and building Lego towers with my son, another lady caught my eye and offered me a casual smile, which I reciprocated.
Neither of us said anything but the small smile made me feel a little like I had an ally. I’d spent the day so far smiling at others and her initiating the eye contact and kind expression was a pleasant boost. My anxiety over the situation slipped away just a bit and I passed on that smile to my husband – who no doubt was more stressed than I was – and I felt him relax somewhat too.
Is smiling contagious
They say smile and the whole world will smile with you and I’ve got to say it’s true. I don’t know about the whole world but it certainly worked for me at my local coffee shop.
Research has shown that we often mimic the facial expressions of our peers when we talk to them. I animatedly chatted to the new lady serving us our coffee and I noticed her instinctively smiling back at me. Despite the fact I was pretty much babbling about a load of rubbish, nothing particularly exciting at all, I did it all with a grin on my cheesy face and she couldn’t help but smile back.
Soon enough I noticed others listening in, wondering what was making us smile and laugh and I turned and smiled at them too. Before I knew it I had half the normally quiet cafe joining in and the mood had gone from sedate to super happy in a few minutes.
To smile or not to smile? That is the question
Throughout the day I’d actually say I smiled closer to 30 strangers – maybe even more – with some either not noticing, choosing to turn a blind eye or looking at me like I was crazy. But for the most part it was positive.
I’m not sure my experiment would have gone quite the same way had I tested it in my former bustling home of Los Angeles as opposed to my new quiet life in the British countryside, but I could be completely wrong.
Even though at times I felt a tad silly, the reduced stress levels I felt from smiling and getting a happy response far outweighed my concerns over what these strangers thought of me.
Taking the time to breathe and smile rather than run around in a hot parental panic really did great things for my mood and I hope for the recipients of my happy face too.
I’m not saying I want to lock eyes and grin widely to every passerby from here on out, but it has made me realise the power of positivity and how something as easy as a smile can make the world of difference.
When it came to school pick up, guess who approached me in the playground? Misery Mum herself. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I think I was rude to you this morning. You caught me off guard, I was having a bad morning and I wasn’t prepared for someone to be nice to me.”
“Thats okay,” I said as I flashed her a forgiving smile. “I hadn’t noticed. I was caught up in the school run too.”
If you’re feeling a bit fed up as the seasons change, our exclusive interview with Melanie C is sure to lift your spirits. Or, try this clever trick to keep in your wellness arsenal that will make you feel instantly happy whenever you use it.