Jun 14

What Can a Smile Do?

by Meghan Fitzgerald

(Header Photo: Leo Rivas)

The world feels nuts, and, if you are like me, there are nights you’ve watched the news or scrolled by one too many provocative Facebook posts, only to find your mind racing through the issues we face—not to mention managing the to-do list that comes with life and family.

With the world in a tough spot, we all need things to buoy our spirits. For me, one of those things is my smile project. I’ve been working quietly on it for nearly ten years now. It feels totally goofy, and yet, it also feels like just the kind of thing we all need these days.

Smile project?

In 2009, I was a principal of an amazing elementary school filled with warm and connecting staff, families and kids. Mine was a job filled with shared smiles exchanged in the hallway, as kids got off the bus, as I peeked into classrooms and on strolls around the playground. When I stepped out of this role and stayed home with our first child, I felt a loss, and I found myself searching for connection in the faces I passed on the streets of Brooklyn.


During one sleepless night, I read a Scientific American article about the impact of smiling, and something clicked for me. According to research, smiling is not only a natural result of feeling happy, but the very act of smiling can trigger feelings of happiness. Smiling releases endorphins, which are natural pain relievers, along with serotonin and dopamine—the “feel good” neurotransmitters. In short, smiling makes us feel happy.

“If you have one smile left in you, give it to the people you love.” —Maya Angelou

Could smiling at someone actually create happy emotions in me? And, if my outgoing smile inspires a smile in another person, could I be giving them a boost of happiness, too? Seemed simple and downright brilliant.

The next day, I strapped Maeve on in the Ergo Baby and hit the sidewalks. As we navigated the neighborhood, I tried to test this out. It took me a few people to get down a smile that felt right—authentic and happy, but not too happy; connecting, but not too creepy.

Since that first article, I’ve continued to read about smiles and their power. I’ve also learned more about affective empathy and how we communicate basic universal emotions through facial expressions. I’ve nerded out watching thinkers like Ron Gutman share a possible connection between smiles and emotional well being, and even life span. There is just something about smiles!


Photo: Caroline Hernandez

How do you smile to get smiles back?

I’m no expert on smiles, but I have honed my technique over the years. Encounter after encounter, I’ve decided that it really comes down to a few things.

First, you have to be willing to try. This also means being cool with rejection (although those have proven to be few and far between).

Second, you have to make eye contact. Real smiles involve both the eyes and the facial muscles. Plus, it takes two to tango, so if you don’t get eye contact back, it’s a no go. And, you’ve got to respect when someone is just not up for engaging.

You also have to mean it. We can all tell a true smile from a fake smile. Psychologists even have a term for it—a “Duchenne smile.

Finally, you have to give wait time. Make eye contact, smile, then really hold that smile. It often takes a second more than you’d think—and just when you are ready to look away and give up, it happens. The other person’s face lights up, and you can feel something light up inside yourself, in return.

Kids can do this, too!

I’ve even got my kids involved. Kids are naturally less inhibited, and they are more disarming to other people, making the smile project really easy for them to implement. My girls love to smile at people, and they have developed a habit of saying “Hello” to people who pass by. We even talk about how smiling sends “happy chemicals” through our minds—and how great it is that when other people smile back, they have “happy chemicals” flowing too!

This project is here to stay.

Nine years in, I am totally hooked.

On a recent day of plane travel, I faced a long walk between terminals and found myself fully immersed in smiling. It was so nice to exchange smiles with so many different people who clearly come from different places. Not only was I lighting up happy chemicals in my mind, but I also had this mounting sense that humans are good—something that seems to be the very last take away in most of the media I see these days.

So, there are miles to go before we sleep and heal this world of ours. But, maybe adding in a smile project could help put some wind in our sails as we journey through rocky seas to better times. If you have a way to keep yourself centered, share it here, too! The more we can crowdsource ideas to lift one another’s spirits, the better!


Meghan Fitzgerald


After 20+ years as an educator, curriculum developer and school leader, I have my dream gig—an entrepreneur/educator/mom who helps families everywhere, including my own, learn outside. Prior to Tinkergarten®, I worked as an Elementary School Principal, a Math/Science Specialist & and a teacher in public and private schools in NY, MA and CA. I earned a BA with majors in English and Developmental Psychology at Amherst College, an MS in Educational Leadership at Bank Street College, and was trained to become a Forest School leader at Bridgwater College, UK. My worldview is formed in response to my environment, culture, family, identity and experiences. What I write in this blog will inevitably betray the blind spots I have as a result—we all have them! Please reach out if there are other perspectives or world views I could consider in anything I write about. I welcome the chance to learn and update any pieces to broaden our shared perspective!

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