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Happy 11th Birthday to The Smile Project

Eleven years ago today, it was unseasonably warm for November in Western Pennsylvania. Driving home from high school, I had my windows down and my radio up. I was taking the same country roads I’d ridden on my entire life. Well… mostly. I did make one turn—the scenic route—that brought me to the place where I had a really clear thought: Day One: Happiness is.. those perfect car rides where the radio just plays all the right songs. I pulled into my parent’s driveway, logged into Facebook on the family computer, and posted that sentence. That is how The Smile Project was born. 2011. I was 17-years-old.


In 2012, when I was 18, I created my first website. I called it The Smile Project. I didn’t know what I was doing but I thought that maybe I could combine my love of writing with this weird “joy journaling movement” I had accidentally started. I thought it would be cool if I could use it to help other people, but I wasn’t really sure how.


In 2013, when I was 19, we designed and created our first merchandise—Smile Project t-shirts. I’ll never forget walking into my college’s library and seeing someone wearing a Smile Project shirt. It was surreal and at the time, felt like the biggest thing The Smile Project would ever do. All the money raised from selling merchandise was donated to charity—we were doing something.


In 2014, when I was 20, we finally added a blog to the website. Since then, we’ve published over 800 blogs. In fact, this will be the 810th. We continued to celebrate our Joy Days (and at times, weeks) on/around November 9 and I continued to wonder what in the world I was doing. Some days it felt like the answer to that question was just “posting on social media.”


In 2015, when I was 21, I was invited to speak about The Smile Project in what was my first formal, official speaking gig. I was enamored. I left that presentation knowing I had just tapped into exactly what I was meant to do. It was if I could close my eyes tight enough, I could see the pieces falling into place.


In 2016, when I was 22, we created our first major program—SPARK. SPARK stands for Strengthening Positivity and Reinforcing Kindness. The two original clubs (Westminster College and Slippery Rock University) were founded that year and are still active clubs today. In fact, Slippery Rock University celebrated a huge Joy Day event yesterday.


In 2017, when I was 23, we finally took the leap. We received our first grant and became a certified nonprofit organization. It had been six years since that first “Happiness is” and I was learning as much as I could every day about what it meant to love this movement, project, nonprofit.


In 2018, when I was 24, we spent 56 days driving around the United States on the #SmileProjectRoadTrip, working with over 30 organizations and being featured on the news in three states. It was probably our biggest endeavor to date and we couldn’t have done it without the love and support of our community.


In 2019, when I was 25, we hosted our biggest Birthday Giveback yet—the goal was to spread kindness in 25 cities around the country and we ended up in 39 cities across 6 countries and 4 continents. We also created the digital Happiness is notebook, affectionately known as “The Bubble Site,” an interactive database for exploring joy.


In 2020, when I was 26, we expanded our team and brought on a volunteer program manager to help us launch the Smile Project Ambassador Program. We also created an online store and gave people the opportunity to purchase newly created stickers.


In 2021, when I was 27, we wrote gratitude letters every week of the year and we formally launched Birthday Giveback as an official program. Our SPARK chapters grew as did the numbers in the Ambassador Program. We were published on more websites and interviewed on more podcasts, we returned to public speaking, and organized on-the-ground kindness projects to celebrate the International Day of Happiness, Birthday Givebacks, and Joy Day. And we turned 10. We turned 10. We turned 10.


Now, it’s 2022 and at age 28, I’ve just celebrated my 4,000th consecutive day of Happiness. And now we’re celebrating the 11th birthday of The Smile Project. Which is to say, I feel like I am celebrating my birthday. There is no way to articulate how devoting nearly 40% of my days on this Earth to joy has radically transformed everything around me. But I’m grateful for it.


I’m grateful for all the sleepless nights and moments of doubt. For all the wild dreams and beautiful people I’ve held along the way. I don’t know what I’ll look back on 11 years from now and have to share about our work. I hope it’s something cool. But I think right now, these first 11 years are something to celebrate. I’m grateful that even when things have been hard, even days where I didn’t want to write a Happiness is, even days where I wanted to burn the whole thing to the ground… I’m grateful for the people that encouraged me to share just one more joy.


Perhaps most of all, I’m grateful for that 17-year-old who took the long way home.


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