Posted on Monday, December 4, 2023
Alumna Elizabeth Buechele ’15 had a simple, happy thought 4,409 days ago. This year, as founder and executive director of The Smile Project, Liz celebrated 12 full years of “Happiness is” posts as part of the non-profit organization she created after posting that one simple, happy and life-changing thought in 2011.
We caught up with this busy New Yorker to congratulate her on a dozen years of Happiness, how her one simple thought still lives on every day on Westminster’s campus, and how to score a free cookie next time you’re in NYC.
As your organization enters its 13th year, tell us about The Smile Project and how it came about?
The Smile Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading Happiness through intentional acts of kindness, youth service clubs, and daily gratitude practices. It was born in 2011 when I was a senior at Seneca Valley High School in Harmony, PA.
On November 9, 2011, I was driving home down the same country roads in Western Pennsylvania that I'd ridden on my entire life. It was unseasonably warm for early November and I had my windows down and my radio up. Normally, this would be accompanied by a simple "good feeling" but instead my brain came up with a crystal clear thought: "Day 1: Happiness is.. those perfect car rides where the radio just plays all the right songs."
This thought was followed by a second thought: "people don't think like that." Nevertheless, like any 17-year-old in 2011 who thinks they have a worldchanging idea, I went home and logged onto Facebook on the shared family computer and made that post. Then, I unceremoniously logged out and went to bed, truthfully not thinking much of it.
Until the next day.
I was grocery shopping with my mother and I had jumped up onto the cart to ride it down the slight hill in the parking lot, much to her dismay. As she was pleading with me to be careful, an elderly woman across the aisle smiled and waved and shouted, "it's okay! My husband still does that." As we got back into the car laughing and smiling, I realized I had a happy moment to post about once again.
The next day was Veteran's Day and I made some sort of "Happiness is" related to that.
That's a long origin story. But I like sharing it because it shows that 1. anyone can replicate this and 2. that you don't have to have any idea what you're really doing to start something.
Can you share the connection between the organization and Westminster?
I was participating as a speaker during a leadership conference in 2015, when a participant enthusiastically asked how he could be involved in the happiness movement associated with The Smile Project. I didn’t have a good answer, so I went home and developed the SPARK program. SPARK stands for Strengthening Positivity and Reinforcing Kindness. Today, Westminster College (and Slippery Rock University) have active SPARK Clubs on campus, dedicated to changing the world one smile at a time. Eight years later, I couldn’t be more proud of the groups and the students involved. We've had other middle and high school SPARK Clubs come and go and even had a couple "Junior SPARKs" at the lower age range. It's a program I feel has a lot of importance and potential and I'm looking forward to continuing to refine and grow.
During and since my time at Westminster, the people have been amazing in helping me nurture and spread Happiness. In 2018, my best friend from WC (Zack Shively ’16) spent two months driving around the United States on the #SmileProjectRoadTrip. We collaborated with over 30 nonprofit and social good organizations, made the news in three cities (San Diego, Los Angeles and Omaha), and helped one lost dog get home in South Dakota. It was an incredible journey of kindness and connectivity.
What else has kept you busy following graduation at Westminster?
I graduated from Westminster in December 2015 and in January 2016 I moved to New York City and started working for a couple nonprofit organizations. In my free time, I really enjoy long distance running, writing, traveling, and making delicious vegan baked goods to share with my friends. I also fell in love with a New Yorker and even in my 12 years of studying Happiness, I am finding he is recalibrating my definition of how much joy one heart can hold.
What’s a fun fact about yourself?
Earlier this year, I won a national cookie naming contest for a New York City-based bakery—though they do have locations in other cities as well. If you're ever at a Chip City and the coffee crumb cake cookie is on the menu and you find yourself embarrassed to be ordering "1 Crumbdiddlyumptious, please." That's on me. And for this genius creativity (does sarcasm play out in text?) I was rewarded with free cookies for a year. So if you're ever in my NYC neighborhood, cookies on me!
How can we (the reader) participate in The Smile Project and its purpose?
A big focus for The Smile Project is intentional acts of kindness. I like saying intentional instead of random because it makes it an active choice. Someone receiving it might think of it as random, but the person who woke up and did the act of kindness made an intentional decision to put goodness out into the world. And that's worth something, I think.
Most recently, a few years ago, we launched a formal Ambassador Program to help encourage people in their own journeys of recording daily joy. Whether they write it in a notebook, on social media, or in the note section of their phone, we're trying to promote the idea of this life-changing action. I have spent the last 12 years trying to articulate what a difference this simple action made for my own mindset and wellbeing and that's something I hope to share with those who join the Ambassador Program. It’s simple, really: Can you write down one thing that makes you happy every single day for a week? For a month? A year? Longer?
If Liz’s story makes you smile, consider joining the happiness cause as an ambassador, by visiting https://www.the-smile-project.com/.