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The Grateful Smile Project

Do you ever sit down face-to-face with yourself and wonder who you’ve become? I was recently granted a few moments of reflection in a lush West Coast forest. I felt clearer than I had in a long time. As I sat nestled amongst giant cedars on a bed of moss, I started to wonder why I didn’t feel clear more often. I started to wonder if I was happy.

What does it actually mean to be happy? I mean, is being happy something outside of me that’s governed by the bundle of events that are happening in my life? If so, there’s probably always an excuse not to be happy, always some reason to be stressed instead of content. But, that isn’t what I want. If you asked me what I wanted in life, I would say, “To be happy.”

I’m doing a course right now through and as part of our course work, we do a lot of goal setting. Goal setting is great, especially when the goals are clear, the steps are planned and there is a process to stop and reflect on how it’s all worked out. So, if my goal in life is to be happy, what am I actively doing about it? It’s all well and good to say it, but in nearly 43 years, I haven’t yet seen a happiness fairy. Maybe it’s time to take this goal and actually do something about it.

As I sat on that mountain, I knew that being happy was my goal (even if it’s not a great one because it’s hard to measure). I decided to begin by just being more aware of how I was feeling. With that thought rattling in my head, I started back up the side of the mountain. Within a few minutes I passed another hiker, we exchanged a smile and then continued on our separate ways.

And it hit me.

I feel happier when I smile. When I exchange smiles with other people, I feel more connected and at ease. I know this isn’t rocket science, but it felt profound. I needed to smile more. Maybe it was as simple as that. More smiles meant more happiness.

My initial excitement waned a little as I climbed. It wasn’t like I’m someone who doesn’t smile at other people. It felt like I was sitting on a treasure chest, marvelling at the gold coin that I had found on the ground. There was just something that I wasn’t getting.

I climbed off the trail and up along a rocky cliff until I found a quiet place to sit. I practiced smiling to myself and found that it was harder than I expected. When I see another person, I smile automatically, but when I am sitting by myself, what’s the incentive to smile?

Then I really got it (or at least I think I did). When I was trying to smile to myself, what produced a genuine smile, was being grateful. Not just thinking about being grateful, but actually taking a moment and feeling grateful.

This is when I decided to do the Grateful Smile Project. I am going to smile more, work my way to a happier self and use this blog as a way of being accountable. I’m not going to wait for the happiness fairy to come, I’m going to start to take responsibility for my own happiness. I don’t have an exact formula, but to start, everytime I feel anxious or overwhelmed, I am going to try to stop and smile to myself.

Of course, the universe heard my plan and decided it needed to be tested. I woke up at 4am with a terrible stomach ache. It was the day we were flying home of course, on a flight that had been changed so that we wouldn’t get in until midnight. After spending most of the next five hours in the bathroom, we had to change our plans for the day.

I didn’t handle the morning with an unshakable well of happiness. I was upset, felt terrible and was worried about how the flight would be if I was sick. It took me awhile to find my smile, but I did. I was grateful to my family who helped me through the morning and the day was salvaged.

Until we left for the airport.

The airport was about forty minutes away from where we were staying, but we gave ourselves an hour and a half in case traffic was slow. The math seemed to be on our side, except that traffic was not moving. There were accidents on both bridges that connected where we were to where we needed to be. Not. Moving. At. All.

Time was still moving though, in fact, time was definitely speeding up. We talked less as the minutes ticked by and the traffic sat. Finally we had to accept that we were not going to get over the bridge, we had to try something different.

Something different was driving to the seabus station, where we unloaded ourselves and all our luggage and ran towards the terminal. My seven year old was carrying his backpack and his booster seat, my nine year old had his pack and our dinner and I had a huge pack on my back and a smaller one on my front and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t smiling.

I definitely wasn’t smiling a few minutes later when I stupidly passed through the ticket booth ahead of my kids, who could not get their transit cards to work. I tried my card on the barrier again and my oldest son came through, but my other son was still stranded and my card wouldn’t work again.

After a few seconds of blind panic, I remembered I had an old transit card in my wallet from our last visit. I whipped it out and it worked. We were off and running again. Literally.

We arrived with six minutes to wait until the next seabus and I tried to smile. I smiled for myself, I smiled at my kids. It didn’t get us any closer to the airport, but it did help a little. On the seabus I started texting to let everyone know that we might not make our flight.

The seabus pulled into dock and we scrambled to the front to make the mad dash towards the skytrain station. This time we had four minutes to wait and again I smiled and found some feelings of gratitude. Once we were on the skytrain, there was nothing to do but hope.

The kids ate sushi. Time moved forward, the skytrain moved forward, but time had a head start.

We arrived at the airport with 35 minutes until our flight was scheduled to leave and were told that we were too late. We didn’t make it.

We all hugged, shed a couple of tears of disappointment and then smiled and reminded each other that it was going to be ok. And it was.

Westjet’s people were great and we were easily rebooked for the next morning. On the skytrain back to my sister’s house to sleep, we talked about all of the ways that we were lucky, even in this adventure that hadn’t worked out as we’d planned.

What’s the difference between an adventure and a (small) disaster? Mostly, I think it’s perspective. I want my perspective to lean towards making my life more joyful and this is where the Grateful Smile Project comes in. For the next 28 days I am going to focus on building the habit of smiling and being grateful (especially when things are not going as planned). It will be like a happiness bootcamp and you are welcome to join. I’d love to hear your stories of how gratitude and smiles turned disaster to adventure. Take a second right now to think about why you are lucky and just let yourself smile.

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