10/22/2013 09:34 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2013

One Little Word That Can Make You Happier

It began as a project to boost her pitiful self-esteem. From the moment she stepped out of her front door until she retreated into her home, she made it her goal in life to say, "Hi" or "Hello" to as many people as she could, and to do so with a friendly smile and more confidence than she actually felt.

The reactions surprised her, to say the least.

Most people eyed her suspiciously, squinting at her as if she were some politician or car salesperson in disguise, trying to sell lies to them. Sometimes they mumbled a cautious or guarded, "Hello" before hurriedly looking away like children afraid of being caught and scolded for talking to strangers. Others simply brushed past her, ignored her, and continued on with their lives; and at first, these cold encounters with aloof strangers hurt her the most - the way they disregarded her, acted like she was a ghost...

Then there were the people who said, "Hello" back. And they meant it.

They turned their heads and looked her in the eyes. They smiled back. Sometimes they even waved too. What she treasured most about these people were their responsiveness, their sincerity, and their curiosity. A greeting often did not stop at a greeting, she learned, especially not with elder folk or small-town people; it was the beginning of a conversation - a harmless but genuine query about her life and her well-being. Once they inquired about her, she found herself asking about them.

Yes, sometimes a conversation dragged on, sometimes the stranger lingered on their favorite subject - usually, themselves - too long, and sometimes there was an ulterior motive like sexual interest in a continued conversation that made itself known...but overall, she found that greeting strangers was pleasant. And easy. And intriguing. And it only took a single word: "Hello."

Then a thought struck her one day.

Often she heard others complain that the modern world was cold, unfriendly, and cruel; however, her life had been made more satisfying by greeting strangers, and the world seemed like a friendlier place when they returned her greeting. The smiles, the polite conversation starters, and the exchange of questions about each other's personal lives made the strangers less threatening, less unfriendly. And so she wondered to herself: If I feel more secure and happier greeting others, why don't other people do the same?

Wouldn't the modern world be a very different place if strangers were less afraid to smile and greet each other, even if just out of courtesy or acknowledgement? As impossible as it sounded, it could be changed. She knew it could. After all, her little world had been changed for the better.

While she knew a smile and a polite greeting to a stranger would not instantly make the world a better place on its own, it was a baby step in the right direction...if only others could overcome their personal fear and be brave long enough to utter a single word:


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