The Smile Economy

I have historically done a lot of my sessions during walks in Edmonton’s excellent ravine and park system. It has always been where I’ve spent a lot of time with friends too. It’s an environment I know very well from a literal lifetime of experience.

Being someone who notices patterns, over the years I’d seen a steady decline in the number of people who smiled, or who would speak to each other as they passed on the trails. But that minor, steady decline was later supercharged by smartphones and social media in 2005.

Prior to that, about 85% of people would greet each other. By 2015, things felt much different as the number of socially open human beings was down to about 15% of people. And those that remained in contact were often much older.

To children observing society, that made basic human kindness look like something only old people do. And that’s important, because we learn to be human by watching other humans. So it had gotten to the point where, just before the pandemic, we were actively teaching children not to connect with anything other than a phone.

Of course, that level of human disconnection didn’t just happen in the ravine. It happened on streets, on transit, in the lunch room at work, on the sidelines of sports fields, in lineups at the grocery store, etc. etc.. We connected with the world at the price of connecting with those around us. And remarkably, we even argued it made no difference if we ignored others, as though we are not truly pack animals.

Eventually, the ubiquity of that approach created a form of ‘normalcy,’ with ‘normal’ being defined as, ‘things we no longer pay attention to.’ And from an unrecognized status, no person, place or thing can upset us or make us happy because we only notice it when things change.

Of course, the pandemic of 2020 represented a huge change. And it has given all of us a lesson in the real value of human contact. Now, even shy people are talking about being people-starved because we all know; all of the interneting and video calls in the world cannot make up for even the most basic human interactions.

For over a year we have seen each other less. And even when we did see each other, in most cases we were two meters apart and our faces were covered. Those extreme conditions normalized the idea of not seeing people. And now we’re to the point where now an in-person human voice and face are novel and interesting again!

In addition, as a result of the vaccines, reduced restrictions and fewer masks, more people have started going out all while feeling optimistic. That’s meant that recently, sessions in the park have taken on a whole new tone. Now about 98% of people will greet everyone that passes them –and quite warmly at that.

It’s a remarkable change. The ravine is again filled with smiles and greetings. It’s easy to see it is a much healthier place from a mental health perspective. People now appreciate strangers. We appreciate eye contact. We not only appreciate when others care about how we are; we appreciate that they notice that we exist at all!

Today, the interactions are far more positive, they last longer, and are more involved. In many cases just passing someone can turn into a long and enjoyable conversation. For those of us old enough to remember it, this feels like the 1970’s.

Things weren’t perfect then either. But, like now, most people were naturally more optimistic, and positive. We generally assumed meeting new people meant good things. And once again, thanks to the pandemic, people are open to those connections. Almost everyone feels friendly and helpful, all while being exceptionally considerate and compassionate.

The effects are wonderful and clearly everyone is enjoying them. But of course, we can turn all of this friendliness back into background noise if we’re not careful. So as we return to life, let’s not do so blindly. Let’s not let our feelings become ‘general.’ We want to really pay attention to where we draw this value in life from.

Let’s learn from this. If we’re conscious about our appreciation, we’ll realize that that is what keeps a tribe together. By seeing value in other people’s pure existence, is to honour them in a way that is a profound part of us as human animals. All this being the case, we would be wise to avoid going out into the world in a busy-minded unconscious state. Even if life is hectic, let’s not forget to include those around us in our consciousness.

We did not see a rise in mental health thanks to our pre-pandemic selfishness and our lack of contact. But if we continue to connect, we will see the value of that connection played out in society. And by learning to appreciate others more, we can collectively lift everyone’s spirits.

When we’re out and about, let’s not forget to participate in this economy of smiles and greetings. Let’s look up and say hello. Because if all of us do that, together, we can not only create the sort of society that we all value being a part of, but we can create one that learns to value us as well.

peace. s