On a hot and humid summer day, a group of friends and I pushed our way through the crowd at Six Flags Fiesta Texas among the throbs of families and employees. Exhausted and ready to sit in the air conditioned car, I was eager to get out of the park and for the silent hour-long car-ride to come. In the blur of the busy crowd, a hand reached out and touched my shoulder, whipping me around to face a taller, older, and heavily sunburned man. “Sweetie, smile more,” he demanded. I did anything but that, more disgusted by the stranger than motivated, and turned back around as fast as I could to catch back up with my group.
I’d like to think of myself as a kind person. I spend a good amount of energy applauding others for their efforts and trying to be as complimentary as possible, and while I may be positive-minded, I’ve had a lifetime of comments like this man’s, telling me to smile and look happier. And they’ve had an effect opposite of what was intended.
I grew up thinking that in order to be happy I just had to smile and make others feel good. I would dish out compliments like grandmas give out candies, and did my best to speak in the most stereotypical cheerleader voice I could. I’d surround myself with people and keep to myself in fear that nobody would like the “real” me – a stranger to myself more than anyone else.
This whole masquerade only led to self-destruction. Once I’d changed schools and realized how few of my friends were people I’d had close bonds with (or at least ones worth maintaining when not talking daily), I’d realized that faking my happiness wasn’t enough and never would be. Years of lying to myself and others about how I felt and what I loved had led to a version of myself that I no longer knew once high school hit.
In this rut, I made myself a promise that I would no longer fake a smile for anyone. Not a family member, friend, or stranger at Six Flags was going to get a smile from me unless it was genuine (or for a photo, to please my mom). While this may sound like I was simply going through an “emo” phase, it was actually in this time that I was the happiest I’ve ever been. I pushed myself in the activities I’d always had an interest in but never pursued due to old insecurities, and found myself making new friends within the communities I’d opened myself up to. When I say that band changed my life, I’m being completely honest. In a time when I thought I was most alone, my peers and instructors opened up to me and provided me with a second home – one that I am now more comfortable in than the one in which I’ve grown up.
Despite what it seems, I get fewer comments to smile more. I’m not some angsty teen – I’m a happy kid, who smiles more often and has millions of reasons to. Faking happiness got me nowhere. Searching for it gave me a reason to wake up every morning.