They stand on a corner, three teenage girls in colorful summer dresses, their hands held high and clutching posterboards in neon green and pink scrawled with cheery messages:
“Find the good.”
“Smile - U - matter.”
“Honk if you’re happy.”
And many drivers do, creating an intermittent cacophony of horns of varying timbres and tempos. The girls respond with wide smiles and spirited fist pumps.
Kinzi Kuhloie gives a thumbs-up as one driver leans on the horn repeatedly in a long series of honks. “Yeah!” she says excitedly. “They’re really pumped!”
Kinzi is 17 and she’s been sign-holding, as she calls it, for two years. Her motivation is uncomplicated.
“Life can get overwhelming and so many things can build up that you don’t find the good,” she says. “This reminds you to look for the good . . . and remember that it’s there.”
Kinzi and her friends, Alyssa Hayne, 16, and Emily VonDongen, 19, have hit the streets in Highlands Ranch with their signs about twice a week this summer. The positive response, they say, keeps them coming back.
“We’re making people happy,” Alyssa says, “one sign at a time.”
Kinzi, Alyssa and Emily are part of a growing grassroots crusade to spread positive thinking. She got the idea from a good friend, a student at Mesa State University in Grand Junction, who started a club to promote positivity by holding signs.
In Anacortes, Wash., in May 2012, the Happiness Sprinkling Project was born when people gathered at a popular intersection and held signs saying “You are loved” and “Yes oh Yes.” The movement to “sprinkle happiness” through sign-holding events has since spread to 20 cities and two countries, according to its website.
Last year, in Washington, D.C., a 29-year-old man campaigned to make people smile by standing at street corners with friends holding posterboards declaring “Honk if you love someone,” “Be happy” and “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Passersby loved them back.
These spontaneous, informal events fit neatly into the emerging field of positive psychology and the study of happiness. Instead of trying to figure out why we feel sad or depressed, positive psychology focuses instead on how we can become happier and more fulfilled.
The world-renowned founder of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, directs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. (You can take the free authentic happiness test on the center’s website at www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx.)
He contends that happiness can be analyzed into three measurable elements —positive emotion, engagement and meaning — and that the ultimate goal is to reach a state of well-being.
What Kinzi and her friends are doing may not be earth-shattering in terms of establishing lasting happiness, but creating moments that make us smile or laugh or lift our spirits can make a difference that matters.
Kateri McRae, an assistant professor at the University of Denver who researches emotions, notes that studies show our brains are wired in a way that tune in more quickly to negative information.
“Evolutionarily, negative information is usually more critical to deal with — and to deal with quickly — and so our brains process negative information a little bit faster,” she says. For instance, “If we discover there is something that wants to eat us out there, (the brain tells us) we should run as fast as possible.”
Our brains hone in rapidly on causes of negative emotion, too.
“We tend to pick out a ‘frownie’ face out of a sea of smiling faces pretty quickly,” McRae says. “Negative emotions can even further narrow our attention and . . . remind us of other negative things,” generating a feedback loop that keeps circulating unhappy feelings.
But those same reinforcing effects manifest themselves with positive emotion also.
“Being in a positive mood tends to make you more aware of the more positive things around you,” McRae says. “Remembering positive things tends to remind you of other positive things.”
What Kinzi and her friends are doing, McRae says, can be clinically described as “benefit-finding” — encouraging people to look for the hidden benefits in life — a component of many therapeutic interventions.
“You never know what is going to send somebody up, flip around a downward spiral into an upward spiral,” McRae says. “There is potential a sign could do that. My best guess would be that it helps a small portion of the people who drive by. You never know what’s going to turn someone’s day around. . . . Sometimes, you just need a reminder.”
For Kinzi and her friends, much happiness comes from making others happy.
Yes, there have been people who flip them off or yell “You suck!” as they drive by. Kinzi’s reaction: “It’s really unfortunate you guys think that way, but you need the love the most.”
But by and far, reaction is overwhelmingly positive.
“Some guy pulled over last week and gave us $20,” Kinzi says. “He said, ‘You deserve some lunch.’ That was cool.”
Another driver once parked to say: “I was having a terrible day and your sign completely turned it around and gave me hope.”
And the driver of a Wonder Bread truck tossed out a box of muffins.
Kinzi has plans to start a club that would take the positivity from the sign-holding to another level, something longer lasting — “the idea if I can change your day, you’ll change somebody else’s day.”
But, on this afternoon, the girls enthusiastically wave their signs in the hope of bringing a little joy to someone who could use a pick-me-up.
One driver shouts through a window: “Have a good day!”
“Yeah!” Emily shouts back, glee in her voice. “You, too!”
A car with two young men stops, waiting for the light to change. The driver leans over and yells: “What are you guys doing this for?”
Emily grins: “To make you guys happy!”
He pauses a moment, looks at her, then: “Thank you for making my day.”
And he eases the car into the intersection, the smile on his face celebrating a moment of unexpected and simple pleasure.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.