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No Smile Limit

By Peter Singer (April 16, 2007)

If you were to walk along the streets of your neighborhood with your face up and an open expression, how many of those who passed you would smile, or greet you in some way?

Smiling is a universal human practice, although readiness to smile at strangers varies according to culture. In Australia, where being open and friendly to strangers is not unusual, the city of Port Phillip, an area covering some of the bayside suburbs of Melbourne, has been using volunteers to find out how often people smile at those who pass them in the street. It then put up signs that look like speed limits, but tell pedestrians that they are in, for example, a “10 Smiles Per Hour Zone.”

Frivolous nonsense? A waste of taxpayers’ money? Mayor Janet Bolitho says that putting up the signs is an attempt to encourage people to smile or say “G’day” – the standard Australian greeting – to both neighbors and strangers as they stroll down the street.  Smiling, she adds, encourages people to feel more connected with each other and safer, so it reduces fear of crime – an important element in the quality of life of many neighborhoods. 

In a related effort to get its residents to know each other, the city government also facilitates street parties. It leaves the details to the locals, but offers organizational advice, loans out barbecues and sun umbrellas, and covers the public liability insurance. Many people who have lived in the same street for many years meet each other for the first time at a street party.

All of this is part of a larger program that attempts to measure changes in the city’s quality of life, so that the city council can know whether it is taking the community in a desirable direction. The council wants Port Phillip to be a sustainable community, not merely in an environmental sense, but also in terms of social equity, economic viability, and cultural vitality.

Port Phillip is serious about being a good global citizen. Instead of seeing private car ownership as a sign of prosperity, the city hails a declining number of cars – and rising use of public transport – as a sign of progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while encouraging a healthier lifestyle in which people are more inclined to walk or ride a bike. The city is also seeking less energy-intensive designs for new buildings. 

Some local governments see their role as being to provide basic services like collecting the trash and maintaining the roads – and of course, collecting the taxes to pay for this. Others promote the area’s economy, by encouraging industry to move to the area, thus increasing jobs and the local tax base.

The Port Phillip city government takes a broader and longer-term view. It wants those who live in the community after the present generation has gone to have the same opportunities for a good quality of life as today’s residents have. To protect that quality of life, it has to be able to measure all the varied aspects that contribute to it – and friendliness is one of them.

For many governments, both national and local, preventing crime is a far higher priority than encouraging friendship and cooperation. But, as Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics has argued in his recent book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, promoting friendship is often easy, cheap, and can have big payoffs in making people happier. So why shouldn’t that be a focus of public policy? 

Very small positive experiences can make people not only feel better about themselves, but also be more helpful to others. In the 1970’s, American psychologists Alice Isen and Paula Levin conducted an experiment in which some randomly selected people making a phone call found a ten-cent coin left behind by a previous caller, and others did not. All subjects were then given an opportunity to help a woman pick up a folder of papers she dropped in front of them.

Isen and Levin claimed that of the 16 who found a coin, 14 helped the woman, while of the 25 who did not find a coin, only one helped her. A further study found a similar difference in willingness to mail an addressed letter that had been left behind in the phone booth: those who found the coin were more likely to mail the letter.

Although later research has cast doubt on the existence of such dramatic differences, there is little doubt that being in a good mood makes people feel better about themselves and more likely to help others. Psychologists refer to it as the “glow of goodwill.” Why shouldn’t taking small steps that may produce such a glow be part of the role of government?

Here is one measure of success: over the past year and a half, the proportion of people who smile at you in Port Phillip has risen, from 8% to 10%.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include How Are We to Live? and Writings on an Ethical Life.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.