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Looking in plain sight for Atlanta’s random signs of optimism

By Michelle Hiskey

Photo of smiley footprint in pavement on Decatur Street near Little Five Points

Smiley footprint in pavement on Decatur Street near Little Five Points

Every day, a block from Five Points MARTA station, hundreds of people walk by or over a deep heel print in the asphalt. Most don’t notice. Some may note that someone walked through a perfectly good paving job.

Look a little closer, and the tread marks are two chevrons side by side. The heel impression is curved upward. Bingo! It’s another “spontaneous smiley”—a feat akin to finding the face of Elvis in a piece of toast, but a whole lot easier.

People all over the world (like me) discover, photograph and post spontaneous smileys to social media as a creative challenge to others. It is tailor made for creative thinkers and distracted people in our crowded and gridlocked city. This fun scavenger hunt can be done anywhere, and a handy time-killer when you’re stuck waiting.

This simple, goofy quest hides something more profound: Looking for the most basic sign of happiness in ordinary circumstances will shift your mood and mindset. Looking for a smiling face can release positive brain chemicals like dopamine.

Photo of Ruth Kaiser

Ruth Kaiser, author and promoter of finding smiles in randomly occurring objects and formations, like the crannies of an English muffin. People all over the world send her photos of “spontaneous smileys.”

“It’s a basic skill that we learn as babies, that when we can find a smiling face, we are more likely to survive,” said Ruth Kaiser, a preschool teacher in California who promoted the find-a-smile movement on social media and ended up having lunch with Oprah and giving a TED talk. “When you see a smile or you smile, even if you don’t feel like smiling, that changes the chemistry in your brain too to make you feel happier.”

There’s a more scientific term for this pursuit: pareidolia, when a vague and random stimulus is perceived as significant (after all, it was just a footprint…). In a recent phone interview, Kaiser talked about how this simple but powerful movement began, how it changed her and how mindfulness helps find the extraordinary in ordinary life.

Do you have a favorite smiley?

There’s one that always chokes me up. A friend of mine that I made through the project had a 3-year-old who was diagnosed with cancer. On the first day of chemo, he was in a room of parents and kids who were very sad. When the IV was pulled out, there were two dots of blood from where the needle punctured his arm, and a little curved puddle of blood. He said, “Don’t wipe that off! Take a picture to send to Ruth!” His mother explained to the nurses what he was talking about, and his reaction completely changed how that day went down in his family’s memories.

Are you innately positive or did you work at it?

Photo of Atlanta manhole smiley.

Atlanta manhole smiley.

My mom was a child psychologist and had her head screwed on straight. I grew up making art and thinking life is great. On a fundamental level I have always known that I choose how happy I am, or how not happy I am. I’ve been conscious my whole life that when I get cut off in traffic, for instance, I have a choice to get mad or not. So for little slights during the day, it’s relatively easy for me to think, ‘When I think about this a week from now, will I still be mad?’ No, it will be trivial, and that’s true of all the little things that irritate us. So I began getting through the day without letting things irritate me or recognizing the feeling of when that was starting to happen. The Smiley Project made this perspective easier and more automatic. As you begin to understand triggers, you will stop going down that road to irritation and anger.

I think if you are happier, your kids are happier and so are the people around you. And if you are modeling not getting grumpy at the stoplight or trying to find a parking space, then you’re demonstrating that while you can get upset, it’s better just to let it be.

Out of that mindset, how did Spontaneous Smiley get started?  

In 2008, I started posting some pictures of smileys on Facebook, which I had joined to see what my kids had been posting. They said I should have a website. People began sending me smileys from all over the world. I started getting nibbles from media, like the Beijing News, London Telegraph and the main magazine in Brazil. I never intended this to grow into what it has.

You’re 54. Did the bright yellow smiley faces of the 1970s influence you?

Photo of propane tank smiley in Decatur

Propane tank smiley in Decatur

Oh yes. I had the yellow stickers, rubber stamps and wrapping paper. I think smiley faces will always stick around. They resonate with people. You see people use emoticons because it makes them feel happy. It’s as simple as that.

An American Express commercial made me enchanted with spontaneous smileys.

I had already been doing spontaneous smileys on my website and Facebook for two years when that ad came out. More people became receptive to my project.

People might write you off as a Pollyanna. You describe yourself as “a cup runneth over gal, not even just half full.” Have you been tested in your life?

It wasn’t just all peaches and cream. I know that we all have back-stories that may have been sad and difficult. Someone in the family may have had a chemical dependency. There may have been violence. There are things in my story that are awful but I do not define myself by that story. I choose to define myself with how I interacted with the world today, and I choose to define myself by that story and not by my past. I am who I am—that is my story right now. I am not all the crap that I have gone through.

How has the project changed you?

Photo of smiley coffee cup from McDonald's

Smiley coffee cup from McDonald’s

It’s helped me come out of my shyness. I am comfortable in own skin wherever I go. I cold called a charity, Operation Smile, after the project became so popular, because I thought it might be a way to raise money for kids who need surgeries [to repair facial deformities]. For every smiley posted, a dollar goes to fund a surgery. It’s been amazing to see one school raise money for five surgeries—stories like that.

You’ve published a book for kids, with two more on the way. Where is this movement going?

The next book is a child’s gratitude journal. We need to talk to kids about optimism. Right now, self-help is all about adults who have been hurt in the past. I want to be the guru of self-help for kids, to prevent that hurt. We’ve neglected a big part of how we think about kids. We’re caught up in academics and manners; maybe we need to teach them how to be happy and well adjusted. Another book is a play on ‘Twas the Night Before,’ because every night is the eve of something great. Every day is an anticipation of the next day being great.

What other practices help you pay attention?

This is a tiny thing, but every time I go through a doorway, I use the foot closest to the door hinge. This makes me pay attention to where I am all the time. It seems so silly, but it’s the kind of thing that keeps you in the present.

I also program daily reminders into my cell phone of the exact time when my children were born and when I was married. Lyle is at 10:28 am, Hillary at 4:48 pm and Darren at 7:25 pm. My wedding to Dave was at 2:30 pm. When one of those alarms sounds, no matter what I am doing, I take a momentary pause to think about how much intense love that I have had for each kid or my husband.

What makes you frowny?

Photo of antique Atlanta cast iron stove smiley

Antique Atlanta cast iron stove smiley

I think that one of the things that hits me in the heart is when people are being unkind. Being optimistic makes me more vulnerable to that. When I see people who are unnecessarily cruel, it breaks my heart. I see the other side and feel its effects more profoundly.

When looking for a smiley, do you look first for the curve or the eyes?

I look for either the pair of things together, or the curve, then see if I can find what’s missing. Sometimes I have to shift positions to get the two streetlights and a branch to line up. When they do, I love making that work. Smileys are a metaphor for making me look at life differently.

Is seeking a smiley as important as finding one?

That’s really true. I will look in the gutter for oil shining on water, and instead of a smiley, I’ll see a rainbow, and that’s delightful. It is a way of soaking in everything, of living life porously and not coated with Teflon. Life is so rich when we stop and notice.

That’s what spontaneous smiley is about: looking at paint on the crosswalks and the lights on the car and reflections in the window, looking for smiling faces. It pulls you out of all the bother in your head. It is a form of meditation.

One of my neighbors said, ‘I don’t get it. What’s the point?’ The point is that looking for happiness can be enough to make you happy.

Michelle Hiskey can be reached at [email protected]

Columnist Ben Smith, who writes this column with his wife Michelle Hiskey, is a veteran reporter and website designer who has freelanced articles for The Toronto Star, CNN, AOL.com, the Daily Report, among other publications. He worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years covering primarily politics and government. Ben earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. Ben and Michelle live in Decatur with their two terrific daughters.

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