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Spontaneous Smiley Project

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When we smile, does the whole world smile back at us?

Ruth Kaiser, founder of the Spontaneous Smiley Project, says yes. Kaiser, who grew up when the smiley face was just gaining popularity—the iconic yellow smiley was invented in the 1960s and paired with "have a happy day" in the 70s—sees smiley faces in everyday life: macaroni salad, playground equipment, tree branches, and sourdough bread. Kaiser, a California artist and preschool director, wanted to share her peculiar knack for spotting smiles in inanimate objects, but wasn't sure how.

toastsmiley.jpgSpontaneous Smiley Project
Photo Essay:: Ruth Kaiser sees smiles in everyday objects, and uses her website to promote a fun, optimistic outlook.

"With the advent of the digital camera, where you can take pictures any old time and it doesn't cost you money, it was suddenly very simple for me to share this hobby, and people would say 'Oh, I get it.'"

Kaiser created a Facebook group in 2008 to share her smiley photographs with her children away at college. To her surprise, the idea resonated with strangers, too. Kaiser launched a website in early 2009—www.spontaneoussmiley.com—and within eight months, the site had two million hits.

Kaiser remembers photographing a smiley created by soda she'd spilled on the sidewalk. As Kaiser stood hunched over, trying to take a picture of what looked like nothing, a man stopped and asked what she was doing. She pointed out the smiley; the man smiled and walked away. A few minutes later, he was back, eager for Kaiser to photograph a smiley he'd spotted.

"As he was walking along, instead of living inside of his head, he was walking through life and paying attention," Kaiser says. "Often the spontaneous smiley is more of a metaphor. It's not that you have to look for smiley faces 24/7. It's about paying attention to your life and the environment around you."

Fans of the project tell Kaiser it's changed their attitude and perspective about daily tasks. One woman says she used to feel irritated while shuttling her kids to and from activities. The Spontaneous Smiley project helped her realize she has a choice in determining her outlook. Instead of feeling irritated, she thinks of how nice it is to have a few moments of calm. Now, she gets out of the car and walks around, taking pictures of spontaneous smileys.

Another fan told Kaiser that when she was little, her mother would send her and her sister to school with notes in their lunchboxes signed, "Mom," with a smiley face in the "o." When their mother passed away, the sisters dealt with her grief in part by pointing out smiley faces to one another and sending each other photographs of smiles in everyday objects—which they interpreted as 'notes from Mom.'

When she launched her site, Kaiser donated a dollar toward cleft palette operations for children each time a smiley photograph was uploaded. It took two months to earn the first surgery, which cost about $250. An orthodontist has since taken over sponsorship; the kids who visit his office have taken a special interest in the project.  

Kaiser is now working to develop a smilathon with a local school. She says she hopes to use the project to open up dialogue with children about optimism and the importance of attitude.

"The behavior you show to another person really makes a difference," she says. "Are you going to be the person who has an open and loving heart or the person who's filled with anger and stress?"

Although Kaiser has big plans for the project, she says she'll always continue the simple act that started the whole movement—taking the time to look around and take snapshots of spontaneous smiles. If the Spontaneous Smiley Project had a single message, she says, it would be: "Pay attention, because all the time we're surrounded by stuff that's really great, and all kinds of reasons to be happy and thankful."


Susie ShuttsSusie Shutts wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Susie is a web editorial intern.

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