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Our Year in Review: The Smile Project in 2021

“There are seasons for maintaining and seasons for growing.” I can hear myself repeating this over and over again as I try to make sense of the shifting tides of my work with The Smile Project. In truth, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by how the year was ending, and as such put off this “year in review” until the last possible moment. What if we have nothing to show?


But as it often goes, when I began sifting through my notes and our old social media posts, I was delightfully surprised. What a year it has been—in maintenance and in growth. And how quickly we sometimes forget simple, joyful moments—like leaving flowers and love letters around town for the International Day of Happiness? Oh and The Smile Project online merchandise shop? That was this year too. Thanks to everyone who continues to support by purchasing stickers and sharing their photos. Case in point, this year was full of beautiful memories. I’d like to share a few of them now.


Perhaps there is nothing I’m more proud of this year than the way the students we work with at our two college SPARK clubs continued to respond to adversity and show up for their classmates, each other, and themselves. The Westminster College and Slippery Rock University SPARK Clubs (both in Western Pennsylvania) found unique ways to spread kindness virtually and in person—whether it was an outdoor yoga class, a socially distanced senior appreciation day, a classic sparkler event, or the sweet surprise of a holiday treat in every student’s mailbox. No matter what this year threw at these resilient students, they showed up every single day, bringing so much joy to their communities.


The Smile Project Ambassador Program is officially in its second year—with dozens of new ambassadors recording their own daily joy journey for 100+ days—and some, now hitting the mark of one (or more!) year(s) of joy. We are so proud of this community. We also wanted to recognize two ambassadors with some big wins this year. Matt Gibson, college student and musician, released an album entitled SOTI. Our favorite track? The one called SMILE. And Pavita Singh, writer, speaker, and executive director of Girls Health Ed, published her first book entitled To All the Magic in Me.


This May (on my birthday, of course!), we officially launched the Birthday Giveback Program, to inspire and encourage others to use their birthday for good. We celebrated my personal Birthday Giveback by gathering with friends in the park to paint kindness rocks. (Kindness rocks would go on to be a theme this year, painting them with friends for World Kindness Day, leaving them for folks to discover, and even finding some of our own!) Also, to honor my grandfather—who would have been 100 in 2021—each March I’ve gone to Panera in the morning and left money with the cashier to pay it forward. This year, to commemorate 100, we embarked on a socially distanced journey to spread kindness in his memory. You can watch the video recap or read the post of replicable kindness ideas here.


On a personal note, I ended 2020 (yes, 2020) as I always do, by reading the letter I wrote the year prior and writing a new one. My simple tradition of writing to myself is always one of my year-end highlights. I am looking forward to writing the 2021 letter this afternoon. This year, I also took letter writing a step beyond and, with some intentional planning, wrote a letter of gratitude each Sunday to someone who has made a difference in my life. If intentional gratitude or thoughtful reflection is something you’re hoping to cultivate more of in 2022, I encourage you to consider one of these practices.


Even though much of 2021 was spent in some combination of quarantine or social distancing, I feel incredibly thankful that after months of virtual activities, I was able to safely gather with students and give public presentations about The Smile Project, every day kindness, and the importance of gratitude. Thank you to RYLA 7305 and Upper St. Clair Leadership Academy (both in Pittsburgh, PA) for having me.


In 2021, we published over 100 blog posts and added new features like the Career Corner (let us know if you’d like to share more about your professional life with our community) and Service Guides (let’s connect if you’d like us to write a how-to guide about something specific.) The most popular post was a June 13th, one minute read entitled Why I Don’t Drink Alcoholgood for a quick reread before New Year’s parties. We’d also like to thank the guest bloggers on our site and those who wrote about The Smile Project on other sites like: Daily Good (Amritha Mandagondi), Odyssey Online (Grace Connors), and Genuine Sunshine Blog (Sarah Ritchie).


Oh, and I suppose we celebrated a pretty big anniversary in November—ten years. Ten years since the first “Happiness is” was posted and ten years of my recording joy every single day. It was a deeply reflective time for me and a humbling moment in the greater story of The Smile Project. Everything since then. Everything you just read. All of that begins with a 17-year-old in Western Pennsylvania and “a car ride where the radio just plays all the right songs.” We also made word clouds for each year of Happiness and if you’re fascinated by language and data like me, you just might enjoy checking them out.


I was talking with a friend the other day about what makes a beautiful life. We decided that perhaps it’s not about “a beautiful life,” but rather the stacking of beautiful, simple moments over and over again into a world we create for ourselves.


Thank you for supplying us with endless beautiful moments in 2021. We look forward to the opportunity to create more in 2022.


Love always,

Liz & The Smile Project Team