It's amazing what a smile can do. Seriously. From the time we are infants, we learn to smile when we are happy. We learn that when we smile, those adults hanging around smile back. We learn to show our happiness and to see it in others. And as children, we give those smiles freely, to loved ones and strangers alike, without prejudice.
Smiling at a stranger might invite conversation, and we really don't have time for that.
Smiling at our boss might make him think we've lost our marbles.
Smiling at that guy you see on the bus everyday might make him think you're hitting on him.
Smiling at your neighbor might make him think you want to grab a drink sometime, like actual friends. But you have enough friends...
Of course, we'll smile when we need something.
"Why no, officer. I thought I had my turn signal on."
"Is that your BEST price?"
"Honey, I know it's my turn, but can you please unload the dishwasher?"
So smiling becomes either (a) a dangerous expression, fraught with unexpected consequences, or (b) a selfish tactic.
A few years ago when I was going through a challenging time in my life, I found that I rarely smiled anymore in every day life. Not at the checker at the grocery store, or the valet who brought my car around, or my postman. Nada. I was so overwhelmed, so buried under the burden of some heavy personal problems, I had let it color every moment of every day.
One day, a total stranger behind me in line at the drugstore said something like, "Hey, it can't be THAT bad. Lighten up!" At first I was incensed. This person didn't know me! Didn't know what I was going through! How dare he assume that I'm just in a crotchety mood for no good reason! But after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that it really didn't matter to him what was going on my life, only that in the thirty seconds of intersection between his life and my life, I looked like an angry, sullen girl.
I kind of was, of course, but that wasn't the point. The point was that I projected "angry, sullen girl" and people treated me like an angry, sullen girl which was like a self-propagating death spiral. The worse I felt, the more anger I projected, the more negative energy I got in return.
So I made a conscious decision: I was going to smile more. I was going to look people in the eye and smile, and say "thank you" like a meant it, and try not to let my misery of spirit oppress other people because, hell, what did they do to deserve it?
Not only did my mood improve, but I found that people, when you smile at them sincerely, actually look at you sincerely. Actually see you as a person as opposed to one more customer or one more person in line ahead of them. And yeah, I did find myself in conversations with strangers but it wasn't nearly as time consuming or uncomfortable as I'd imagined. And yes, every once in awhile someone takes a smile the wrong way and you end up having to turn down a very nice dinner invitation with the guy who manages your local grocery store, but is that really so bad? Nah.
Bottom line: when I smiled more, I got more smiles in return. And that, more than anything, pulled me through the dark times.