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Merry Christmas! How’s your gift shopping going? I finished all of my immediate family Christmas shopping several weeks ago and I’m so proud of myself. I think that’s pretty good for a master procrastinator like me.

Moving on . . . would you like to know a simple way to help make someone’s day so much brighter and more positive? It’s simpler than you think and often overlooked.

If you don’t already know, I’ve been working as a library aide with my county library for the past year and a half. My job primarily involves covering the customer service desk, so I’ve seen quite a few unique and interesting people come through the library.

Actually, most of the time the customers that I help are what you might consider just your normal everyday people. Not particularly memorable. I don’t meant that in a negative way by any means, but working in customer service, you have those certain customers that just stick in your memory, and then you have the rest of the customers that fade into the gray, misty background of the many random humans coming and going. The ones that do stick in your mind have something unique about them that makes them harder to forget.

That memorable quality might be different for everyone, but for me, one major memorable quality is a person’s demeanor and expressions and, in turn, how that makes me feel. The greater the extreme of someone’s demeanor, the more memorable the person.

Are they super happy and bubbly and light up the world around them? (Those ones usually make my day, by the way.)

Are they exceptionally shy or reserved? (Potential for awkwardness . . . because I’m already working my hardest to be outgoing and that just makes it so much harder for me.)

Are they exuding an Eeyore-sized cloud of depression or hopelessness? Are they mad at the world?

Whatever it is, if it’s a more uncommon characteristic, that person will stay lodged in my long-term memory. 

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One thing I like about my job is that I have the potential of contributing in a positive way to someone’s day. Sometimes that comes about because I help someone find a book they’re looking for, or figure out a problem with their library account. But other times, it’s simply by being a positive and cheerful influence in their life.

If you were looking for practical ways to be that positive influence in people’s lives, you might naturally want to go with something bigger and complex.

But did you know that you can start with something much simpler and completely cost-effective?

I think we often underestimate the power of a genuine smile. I can’t count the times that a customer has come to the desk looking uncertain, or frazzled, or down about something I have no clue about, but once I give them a genuine and welcoming smile, they become noticeably lighter, happier, and certain of themselves.

Here’s an example: recently a woman came to the desk pushing her elderly mother in a wheel chair. While I helped the daughter, her mother sat nearby waiting and silently observing the transaction. Even though I was focusing on helping her daughter, I couldn’t help but notice the older woman. She looked like your typical grandmother with a white bun and all, but what really drew my attention was her face. She had such a stern expression that it gave her that scary old crone appearance. Honestly, if I had seen her as a six-year-old, I might have been terrified that she would suddenly lunge at me with a flesh hook or something.

I felt like I should try giving her a smile to lighten up her day in some way, but I really just wanted to hurry up and get to the next customer because her stony, almost judgmental, expression was seriously starting to give me involuntary shudders. As they were about to leave, I finally decided to just give it a try and send them off with as genuine a smile as I could muster.

I could hardly believe my eyes when this harsh-looking old lady returned my smile with one of her own. It was a beautiful, warm smile, and it literally transformed her entire appearance. She changed from scary and creepy in my mind to warm and friendly just like that. My six-year-old self would have wanted to go snuggle on her lap with a cup of hot chocolate while she read me a bedtime story.

I realized that I had been unfairly stereotyping her into this mean, bitter old lady, when really she was a normal, sweet older woman who has had her share of good and bad in this life and who, in all likelihood, was probably tired, maybe even in pain or discomfort, and ready to go home, and simply needed someone to send a little burst of love and cheer into her afternoon.

I have no clue if I helped to make her life better in the long run, but I do know that her response to me transformed me and as a result she’s been stuck in my head ever since.

She and many other customers I’ve worked with over the months have helped me realize that I can’t label or prejudge anyone based on my initial impressions, because most of the time those impressions are wrong.

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You might agree with me that most people seem to just go about their day keeping their focus on one thing at a time, not paying any particular attention to the people around them, or even going so far as to intentionally avoid paying attention to other people or making eye contact at all.

I get it–I totally do. I think maybe it’s the personal need for privacy, or maybe it’s the fact that making eye contact can lead to awkwardness or interacting with random strangers in any way gets us more involved with them than we have the time or energy for. Tunnel vision is just the easy way out of having to deal with the messes and jumbles out there.

Maybe we function in that avoidant manner because we assume everyone else around us feels the same way and we’re semi-subconsciously trying to help the world flow smoother all around. 

But what if not everyone around you felt that way? What if countless humans you pass by every day were merely existing, yet longing for that elusive touch of human connection to keep them going? What if you were able to transform someone’s entire day, or even their entire life, by a simple, real smile?

I think if I thought about that more, I’d be a lot slower to zone out and go through my day with tunnel vision. Although I don’t always feel like it, a smile can make someone’s day (and mine), run smoother and happier.

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A smile can be its own self-contained kernel of sunshine, but if you’re feeling brave, it doesn’t have to end there. Once you’ve proverbially broken the ice with an exchange of smiles, it’s much easier to just go a little further and offer some kind, friendly words to put the person at ease. It doesn’t have to be anything complex; just something quick and small to show the other person that they are significant and that you’ve put effort into acknowledging them.

Even if the situation doesn’t pan out into what you might hope, at least you’ve given it your best and done your part to spread love into the world. Maybe you’re not going to suddenly meet your next best friend or your soul mate in the checkout line at the grocery store, but you have demonstrated to that individual that they are a valuable human being worth your time and effort. You never know what impact a simple kind word can have on someone’s life.

I hope you’ve gotten something good out of this, and that you will have some opportunities to spread hope and love during this holiday season. For me, this is something I continually have to remind myself of, because my default setting is definitely not this. It really takes a mind and heart not focused on one’s self, but on others and their best interests. That’s my goal.