by Niall Doherty

From the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris:

“I instituted a make-eye-contact-and-smile policy that turned out to be genuinely enjoyable. It was like I was running for mayor. The fact that my days now included long strings of positive interactions made me feel good (not to mention popular). Acknowledging other people’s basic humanity is a remarkably effective way of shooing away the swarm of self-referential thoughts that buzz like gnats around our heads.”

I’m writing this on my eighth consecutive day aboard a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve been trying to institute the make-eye-contact-and-smile policy myself. Usually I throw in a nod, too.

There are plenty of opportunities to practice aboard this ship, with something like ten thousand eyes along for the ride.

Many people return my look and smile as we pass each other by. Some beat me to the punch. Others blank me.

Blanking is a funny thing. From the point of view of the person being blanked, you feel invisible, unimportant, irrelevant. Another human being just walked on by and it was as if they didn’t notice you, or didn’t care that you were there.

I get it though. I’ve blanked many people in the past (and still fall back into it occasionally). It usually happens when I’m feeling overly self-conscious. I’m scared of being rejected (the other person not returning my acknowledgement), and then feeling embarrassed.

Some days I don’t care about rejection and embarrassment. Other days I do. But I’m making an effort to acknowledge people every day regardless of how I’m feeling.

I’m doing so because I want to live in a world where people acknowledge each other.

I once lived in an apartment complex in Ireland where residents would stare at the ground and not say a word as they crossed paths coming in and out of the building. I found that very discomforting. These were neighbors, often seeing each other a few times a week, and they didn’t acknowledge each other’s basic humanity.

Think of how it feels when someone does offer you up a warm smile and a friendly hello, no strings attached. Compare that to someone looking away as they pass you by, as if making a determined effort not to acknowledge you. Or someone who just stares straight ahead, as if you don’t exist.

I want to be that first someone. I want to live in a world where he’s everywhere, a world where everyone feels more worthwhile, connected, acknowledged.

Of course, we can’t acknowledge everyone in every situation. Sometimes it’s impossible (e.g. walking down a busy street), other times it’s just weird (e.g. trying to acknowledge every stranger in a restaurant).

In certain situations it can even be dangerous. I’m thinking of smiling and nodding at the sketchy dude standing on the street corner for the past half hour, or a lone woman making eye contact and smiling at a man she passes on a dark street.

Such situations aside though, there’s really no excuse. Whenever you pass a person by, sit down beside someone, or join people in an elevator, offer up a little acknowledgement.

Make eye contact and smile. Give them a friendly nod. Say hello.

To me, it’s the simplest thing we can do to make the world a better place.