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A Million Smiles: From war torn wreckage to bustling metropolises, Mike Worsman searches for a smile

The Mills Longitudinal Study at UC Berkeley was a 50 year investigation of the wellbeing and social development of a group of women since graduating from the college. The initial study examined the smiles from photos of 20-something year old women in their college yearbook in order to measure any favourable outcomes in their lives many years later. Only the Duchenne Smile was considered as it sees the corners of the mouth and cheeks raised, and crow’s feet formed at our brow. Essentially the Duchenne Smile is our physiological expression of true happiness. What the study posited was that emotional tendencies are believed to shape personality and the life course of their influence on cognitive, behavioral and social processes.

30 years later, the study found that positive emotional expression in their college yearbook photos related to stable aspects of personality change in certain traits over time, observers’ judgement of the women’s personalities and their responses to those women, and life outcomes measured up to 30 years later. In fact, over time, those who expressed more positive emotion in their yearbook pictures became more organized, mentally focused and achievement oriented. In conclusion, smile more for a better life.

Such was the guiding logic behind A Million Smiles, a self-started project by journalist Mike Worsman, who thought it was time to share stories of happiness worldwide.

Upon graduating from journalism, with a specialisation in filmmaking, Worsman began working at a TV station. It was his dream job, but something didn’t quite fit the way that he had expected. He began to face a moral dilemma and couldn’t be involved in the fear mongering negative side of the media. He took a step back, left his job, and went to work at a supermarket while also doing some work for Channel 9 as he investigated what he wanted to do in his life, and how exactly he wanted his story-telling to look.

He then started working in PR and Media at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, motivated to disseminate positive stories – from research breakthroughs to surgeries, and everything that could go right in the world of medicine. After a chance meeting with someone that he had gone to university with, he started a news organisation called Our World Today. “I guess that really sparked this want and desire to share stories that could really affect people’s lives and the way that they see the world, inspiring them to see a different reality,” he says. “Instead of fighting against this beast of a thing that is the media – why not actually work with it through another storytelling medium?”

At its height, the content of Our World Today was reaching thousands of page views per day. But after some administrative difficulties a few years later, Our World Today came to a halt, and Worsman’s project A Million Smiles started to come to life. Mike quit his job at the hospital, sold his house and pursued his idea.

The idea came one Christmas while he was with his friend at a busy city intersection. He had just written an article about loneliness becoming the number one cause of depression in the Western World, and as he observed passers by, he couldn’t help but feel that these people just didn’t seem all that happy. “A Million Smiles was born of the idea that we needed to imagine a happier world, before we could create one,” says Worsman. “You can smile at a stranger on the street, and it can change their day, so it can begin with just the smallest gesture and in this world where loneliness is the number one cause of depression, and if we can just acknowledge that we’re in the world with other people, I think a huge change is possible just from those simple acts,” he says.

This is why Worsman felt it was important to communicate this to a larger, more global audience, and so A Million Smiles was born as an online platform for sharing astonishing stories about people, places and ideas that could inspire people to find and pursue what makes them smile. Worsman sources these stories as he travels from ravished war torn nations to the bustling metropolises to find extraordinary individuals who have equally extraordinary stories to tell.

 

I felt so sad leaving that country because it’s like leaving thousands of good people to suffer, and suffer a lot. One of the boys that I had become good friends with opened my eyes to the real problem there, as I was leaving he said, ‘no it’s OK Mike, we’re used to it.

 

Photo: Mike Worsman

 

While commencing the project Worsman experienced a few setbacks: a commission that would be put towards his wedding fell through, his online work and a series of photos and videos that he gathered in Afghanistan didn’t achieve the reach that he had anticipated. “A lot of things just seemed really difficult all at once, then suddenly everything turned around. My father-in-law says that there is no such thing as luck, and I tend to agree with him. It’s about timing and being prepared and working hard enough that when those opportunities come in front of you, you are able to take them,” he says.

Opportunities don’t seem to fall short for Worsman, and neither does his motivation and interest in sharing stories that we would otherwise be very unlikely to find anywhere else. Only a few months ago he returned from a visit to Afghanistan, where he describes children as young as four or five, sitting in the streets, greasing car parts and making 50 cents or a dollar per day at the most. Although bombings occurred almost daily in Afghanistan, he says that it was a hard country to leave. “I felt so sad leaving that country because it’s like leaving thousands of good people to suffer, and suffer a lot. One of the boys that I had become good friends with opened my eyes to the real problem there, as I was leaving he said, ‘no it’s OK Mike, we’re used to it.’”

Perspective can be hard to come by, but when one has it and more importantly when one shares it, it has the ability to change our understanding of the world drastically. In a Middle Eastern territory that must remain unnamed, Worsman had been trying to hail a taxi for hours in 50-degree heat (having spent all day by himself looking for desert tribes) when suddenly a car stopped. He got in and started talking with his driver, who quickly exclaimed, “I am a member of the Taliban”. Natural instinct dictated that Mike begins to panic, but as soon as he did, the driver started explaining himself. He warned Mike not to worry – not all Taliban members are murderers, the driver said. From the village that the driver was from, people were conscripted to become a member of the Taliban if you are 16 years or older, otherwise your family would be killed.

 

We’re not saying that everyone needs to quit their job, or sell their house, it’s just to stop and ask yourself could you be doing more to truly make yourself happy? If you’re not working towards happiness in your life, why else are you here?

 

Photo: Mike Worsman

 

A change of perspective also came through his visit to China where he discovered the severe competitiveness among its youth was contributing to a great unhappiness nationwide. The best example, recalls Worsman, is a conversation that he had with a young couple, one was a student, and the other was working. He asked them if people in China are generally considered happy, to which they replied no. “There are just too many people they said to me. It’s so competitive. Everything in life over there comes back to competition because there are just so many people,” he says. “They told me that kindness was seen as weakness, which is always going to be a massive problem for any society.”

As he travels the world searching for stories, he admits that A Million Smiles aims to be the spark that makes someone smile – the Duchenne smile. “We’re just trying to be that catalyst that just brings up the happiness that exists within all of us. People will think ‘wow, why did that make me happy? Maybe I should think about life in a different way, and hopefully that leads to a bigger change in life,” he says.

For the next few years this is Mike Worsman’s mission: to find inspiring stories, and share them on a global scale in the hopes of inspiring someone. A Million Smiles has shared more than 10,000 photos, videos and stories with more than 25 million people, and it’s growing. Armed with achievements, the next steps include a book, and the largest and happiest art exhibition on earth, as well as working with schools, government and policy makers to start educating people about the values of happiness.

“We’re not saying that everyone needs to quit their job, or sell their house, it’s just to stop and ask yourself could you be doing more to truly make yourself happy? If you’re not working towards happiness in your life, why else are you here?”

featured image: Mike Worsman

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