Ten Smiles Per Hour: Tax on the Dour?

happyface.jpgTaking a break from weighty topics like world hunger, Peter Singer reflects on an Australian City’s decision to encourage cheer among residents:

[T]he city of Port Phillip . . . has been using volunteers to find out how often people smile at those who pass them in the street. It then put up signs that look like speed limits, but tell pedestrians that they are in, for example, a “10 Smiles Per Hour Zone.” . . . . Mayor Janet Bolitho says that [smiling] . . . . encourages people to feel more connected with each other and safer, so it reduces fear of crime – an important element in the quality of life of many neighborhoods.

Singer backs the effort, based on some “happiness research” mentioned in my last post: “promoting friendship is often easy, cheap, and can have big payoffs in making people happier. So why shouldn’t that be a focus of public policy?”

I was reminded of Quentin Crisp’s classic comparison of England and America: the former combines a generous welfare state with icy social mores, while the latter has sunny individuals and comparatively stingy social provision. But we shouldn’t discount the role of happy cultures in creating happy people; as Barbara Ehrenreich has noted, perhaps the rise in rates of depression “can be connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnival and other traditional festivities.”

Some theorists of discrimination might argue that government intervention to change a sticky norm of unfriendliness amounts to a tax on the dour. Why are they being forced to affect sentiments they don’t authentically feel? But I think the problem has less to do with “faking it” than with the systematic substitution of, say, well-founded dread with carefree bonhomie. Consider U.S. teens’ expectations of future earning power:

American teens believe … that when they get older they will be earning an average annual salary of $145,500. Interestingly, boys expect to earn an average $173,000 a year and girls $114,200 … The fact is, only about 14 percent of U.S. households have incomes between $100,000 and $200,000, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income in the United States is actually $46,326.

Perhaps the boys’ keen understanding of current fiscal policy has led them to anticipate a hyperinflation.

Admittedly, the optimal level of cheer (or optimism) in a society is impossible to assess in the abstract. But I think Port Philip’s strategy may ultimately backfire. It threatens to set in motion a Gresham’s law of public gladness, whereby bad smiles drive out (or at least devalue) the good. Perhaps a certain seigniorage of cheer will increase gross happiness in the short run. But in the end, it may well set us on the road to a situation like that described in Vaclav Havel’s essay on the grocer in Power of the Powerless. Grinning done as public duty may be indistinguishable from a grimace.

Photo Credit: Flickr/TobyLeah.

You may also like...