Commuters are a tough crowd. They come spilling off the trains, staring at their phones, sealed off from the world by their earbuds, and trudging resolutely ahead on their way to work.
But on a recent Friday morning at South Station, something silly happened. Seven people waved colorful, mostly handmade signs and shouted greetings: “Welcome to Boston!,” “It’s almost the weekend! Woo-hoo!,” “Happy Friday!” Even commuters had to smile. Some snapped photos with their phones to tweet or post on Facebook.
Robin Gifford of Bridgewater waved back at the folks in green T-shirts and shouted, “You should do this every day!” She strutted along toward the Financial District with a smile on her face. “It kind of gets your blood flowing — in a good way — instead of boiling,” she said. “It’s going to make a difference in my whole day.”
That’s the point.
Gifford was a beneficiary of a so-called “social experiment” to make Boston a friendlier, more upbeat place by coaxing a smile onto a lot of faces. The experiments are a facet of the “Happier Boston” campaign dreamed up by ad agency Hill Holliday for Samaritans, the Boston and MetroWest organization best known for its 24-hour hot line and its billboards and signs reaching out to the desperate and depressed.
“We work Friday morning for a reason,” wryly observed Samaritans executive director Roberta Hurtig, who was among the group exhorting commuters to “Hang in there! It’s almost the weekend.”
She acknowledged that Happier Boston is a radical image shift for an organization providing services to depressed and suicidal individuals and to family and friends touched by suicide. “But what I love about this campaign,” said Hurtig, “is that it celebrates what those of us on the inside know we really do. We really do provide compassion, kindness, and happiness.”
Smiles go both ways. Maggie Prisinzano, a graduate student in social work at Boston University and Samaritans intern, was beaming as the hour of greeting ended. “It’s the perfect way to start the day,” she said. “I feel happier. I’m going to carry it on to the office.”
But the Samaritans are looking for more than a good vibe. The organization approached Hill Holliday over the summer with a request for pro bono assistance to boost support from the business community and to raise public visibility. Mike Sheehan, CEO of Hill Holliday, said the project was irresistible and not just because of the Samaritans’ compelling mission. “You lick your chops when someone comes in and says, ‘Here’s our problem. How would you solve it?’ That is the ideal scenario for a creative person.”
It was clear that the Samaritans already had a strong public image, Sheehan said. “But people always think of Sagamore Bridge — if you’re feeling depressed, call the Samaritans. As a result, the Samaritans were always linked to suicide, to depression.”
Hill Holliday did not want to lose the message that the Samaritans are always ready to listen, but felt the organization’s public image would seem less somber if people recognized the human touch behind the services.
“The creative team said, ‘Why not flip this on its head? Let’s look at it through a completely different lens,’ ” explained Sheehan. “That lens is Happier Boston.” The less obvious agenda of the campaign, he said, is to “increase partnerships and donations so that whenever someone is at that point in their life where they make that call to the Samaritans, we can make sure someone is there to answer it.”
The first social experiment of the campaign took place in the fifth inning of the Sept. 22 Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Called “Hi Five in the 5th,” it urged everyone in the stands to turn to a neighbor and give that person a high five. For a brief moment in that notably downbeat month, Fenway was a sea of smiles.
The campaign gained momentum later in the fall. Not coincidentally, calls to suicide prevention hot lines take on a particular poignancy with the approach of the holiday season. “If you’re estranged from your family, or out of work, it seems all the more painful when everyone around you is celebrating,” said Hurtig. “This campaign is about emphasizing the happiness that’s created when people are there for one another.”
Most of the social experiments to date have been greeting events at commuter rail stations. The Happier Boston cadre sometimes hands out oranges affixed with cheerful messages (“add sunshine to your day” or “daily dose of happiness”). At a recent “Orange You Happy?” happening at Back Bay Station, five crates of oranges disappeared in a matter of minutes. Commuters accepted the fruit with a smile, some hefting or even bouncing it in their hands. Then they would tuck the oranges away in pockets or purses and head off to work with a little more spring in their step.
“People are in this intense mind-set — gotta get to work, gotta get to work,” said Emily Britt, “but they had this great reaction when I smiled and offered them fruit. It’s outside social norms!”
Britt lost a family friend and two classmates to suicide over a six-year period and now works with Samaritans grief support groups. “I don’t want to undermine the seriousness of our work,” she says. “We’re not saying that the things we do as part of the Happier Boston campaign will solve all your problems. But there is community support. Why not turn to each other and give a smile?”
That’s the nature of the social experiments — simple, elegant, person-to-person gestures that pull people out of their routines and hit reset on the day’s mood. Witness the “Elevator A Cappella” project, where The Bostonians singers from Boston College suddenly broke into a rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” with a series of unsuspecting elevator passengers. By the time the door opened, even the dourest worker bee was buzzing with amusement.
The events derive their power from interpersonal interaction and the sheer contagion of a smile. They may be evanescent, but some of them live on as videos on the Happier Boston website (www.hap
pierboston.org), to which office workers (or anyone in need of a happiness fix) can sneak away during the day for a surreptitious smile.
Although the website is subtitled “Your Smile Shared,” it remains more a broadcast vehicle than a junction for personal connection. It is a work in progress. Beyond compiling and preserving videos of events, the website invites visitors to post their own photos of places in Boston that make them happy. Designated Happy Spots so far range from the lagoon at the Public Garden and walkways of Boston Common to a boathouse on the Charles River. Probably destined to become the most popular corner of HappierBoston.org is the Blues Engine, which draws on the jocular blues tradition where the singer exorcises his or her troubles by setting them to music.
The first Blues Engine PSA, recorded by David Ortiz, debuted last week. Working in front of a blues track laid down by local musical legend James Montgomery and his band, Big Papi relates his “I want to play baseball in October” blues. “I want another parade,” intones the slugger, “and a big ring.” Montgomery chimes in, “Big Papi wants brand new bling!” The music features an upbeat tempo and a jump guitar line. Add Ortiz’s spoken deep baritone and it’s impossible not to smile. Coming soon at HappierBoston.org and on the radio: Mayor Thomas M. Menino will testify to the “pothole blues,” also with a track from Montgomery and his band. Listeners can dub their own laments onto the same soundtracks at the website.
Pop-up surprise events will continue in 2013, Hurtig said. Bostonians should be primed and ready to smile, given that a crowd of cheerful greeters or other merrymakers could materialize when least expected. But Hurtig would also like to see Bostonians take matters into their own hands.
“At the end of the day, I would love for people to do their own social experiment,” she said. “Walk down the street, look at people and smile, and see the power of that gift. Our community will be better for it.”Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.