The Power of a Smile

Today on the bus, I found the extraordinary within the ordinary.

It was the busy number 20–a bus known for its diverse ridership on a route that passes through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

I don’t know about you, but when I take the bus, I typically hop on, show my fare and take a seat while I sit quietly until I reach my destination.  But this time it was different.  I was met with palpable kindness.  The driver greeted me warmly with a generous smile.  I noticed.  It reached me on a deeper gut level.  I kept thinking about the power of her gesture as the bus moved along.

And then I noticed some more.  I saw how rider after rider was afforded the same warmth.  I saw her ask after regulars and even accept a hug from someone who hadn’t seen her in a while.  I noticed how she said good bye to those passengers who left by the front doors and encouraged them to take care. I noticed how almost everyone was smiling when they got on the bus.  And the striking thing was that there wasn’t a trace of insincerity, or worse, “do-goodism.”  It was straight from the heart.

But it wasn’t just the impact that she had on others that affected me.  What intrigued me even more was that here was a person who was creating her own destiny, a type of positive self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak.  She appeared genuinely happy.

I’ve always been interested by how we, to a great extent, create the conditions of our own lives by how we perceive the world. In a sense, we decide how much we’re going to suffer.  If we’re grouchy, we’re often caught in a negative feedback loop: cranky to others, others respond negatively, we decide that it’s a horrible world out there.  And, the opposite is true: we treat others respectfully, people respond well, our faith in humanity is confirmed.

Now, I’m not advocating a phony “being positive at all costs” approach, nor am I advocating being sickly sweet to others—this is not genuine and is often rightly interpreted as condescending. Children are often victims of this approach.  Acting is not the point here.

But, I think we have some choices.  For example, we can choose not to blast our horn and raise our fist in anger at someone who cuts us off when we’re driving.  Why?  Because it’s us that actually suffers: our blood pressure rises, our stress mounts and we indulge in negative thought patterns, all which affects our overall sense of well-being. Put simply, we suffer.

Being genuinely kind, when it seems good to do so, can open our heart to new internal experiences.  We may find ourselves taking positive steps that we never thought we could do and growing in ways we never thought were possible.  We may find that thanking others when we feel too tired to do so actually lifts our spirits.  Sometimes it can be good to push just a little past our comfort zone, letting go of our self-imposed fears and limitations for the benefit of the better good.  I was having a conversation with another parent, laughing at how I was feeling anxious about making a snack for 25 school children, when I routinely respond calmly to clients’ trauma, suicidal thoughts, etc., in my counselling practice.  Ridiculous, yes, but this is a daily life example of upping the ante for oneself, just a little bit.

And back to the bus driver: she’s human, obviously.  She has bad days.  I caught her on a good one. But I’d be willing to bet that they outnumber the bad…by a long shot.