Ron Gutman

Founder and CEO, TEDx Silicon Valley


This conversation is closed.

What if we measure our progress with Gross National Smiling instead of GDP?

And, what is the global social, economic, political impact of smiles?

Smiling is an amazing indicator. They show more than just how "happy" we are in a given moment; smiling can actually indicate our overall quality of life, from our sense of well-being, to our relationship success, and even to our health and longevity. Research also shows that efforts to induce smiling are more effective than efforts to create happiness.

Recognizing these benefits, what would happen if we created social priorities around smiling, and used this to measure our progress? Instead of the Gross National Happiness Index used in China, what would happen if we created a Gross National Smiling Index all over the world? What impact could this have on social and economic well being, and the relationship between countries? How could we help bring more smiling, and its associated benefits, to cultures everywhere?

Closing Statement from Ron Gutman

Thank you all for a great conversation. Researching the topic of smiling for my TED Talk and my TED Book has been so amazing because of people like you who have been so engaged in the conversation and in enlightening me about what smiling means to them. I thought that suggesting a GNS (Gross National Smiling) Index as a thought provoking exercise would be a great discussion opener for the meaning and importance of smiling in our lives, and how it can become a vehicle and lubricant for positive change. In conclusion, I'm happy share that it's inspiring to me to see how much energy there is around this topic, and that it seems that people would like to see more focus in our lives on smiling happiness and positivity as measures of "doing well" both personally and nationally :)

  • Jan 25 2012: Just last week I was thinking about laughter and I had the idea to start a 'family joke jar'. I read some jokes online, wrote down one I thought would get a chuckle, and folded the paper over and dropped it in the jug. Now my husband and kids participate, randomly writing down jokes for the jar, or taking a peek to see if anyone has dropped one in lately. It's awesome... I love laughing, and it's great to make others smile =0)

    My husband will likely start doing this at his workplace. He really gets a kick out of it. =0P Spread the Smiles!
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx Janice! what an amazing idea! I'm going to try it myself today in HealthTap, which is the company I run here in Silicon Valley... I think everyone here would really enjoy sharing funny things and great positive energies in a jar that other people can then "tap" into and absorb the positive energy when they need it most. Many thanks for this fabulous idea Janice :)
      • Jan 25 2012: Thanks, Ron! I hope you enjoy it =0) That's a pretty cool website you have there. I'll have to check it out =)
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      Jan 25 2012: What a great Idea Janice. I'll have to start that up in my end of town.
  • Jan 25 2012: This is very interesting. I'm from Japan and even though we are the 4th most peaceful country in the world, there is a statistics that we are like the 100th happiest country in the world. I wonder what it would actually look like if we do have a Smiling Indicator and make a graph out of it in comparison to the world's highest GDP countries. I bet that developed countries would actually have less smiles because of the millions of issues they are encountered. Let's face it: America is the country with the highest GDP and a pretty high income, but the problems we face: Health Care, Government, Immigration, Segregation, etc.... so I bet they won't top the Smiling indicator.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx for you comment Klyomi... I wondered if starting to measure happiness with a proxy that is much easier to measure and much easier to actually DO like Smiling, can help us as individuals and nations put a bigger emphasis on making people better off by helping them feel better. When I conducted the research for my book, I travelled to China to give a keynote talk at the annual convention of Operation Smile in Beijing. In this trip I made some great local friends who introduced me to the happiness/smiling culture in China. I was surprised to discover that even the government in China is now considering to shift their focus on measuring happiness, rather than just focusing on GDP... As more and more people in this world shift their focus from survival mode to growth mode, additional "output" as measured by GSP seems to not be enough of a motivator to continue progress... Food for thought to all of us :)
  • Jan 25 2012: Can't wait to read the book!

    Have wondered often about the power of smiling.
    I am a smiley person, no idea when it began, but I cannot help smiling.
    I have noticed how smiling changes the mood. When we hear that someone's presence changes the mood of a room, I think the same thing can be said for smile. I think it is not only an excellent idea to think about it as an indicator but also a tool. Too many thoughts to write up in the last 8 minutes but will definitely looking forward to the reading the book.

    Last scribble, I was in a street in Paris, by la place de la République, it was very crowded. I don't think about it, I just smile, and it was in one of those moments that I smiled to a French Lady but kept walking and smiling I suppose. I was shocked that between the crowd someone pulled my arm, it was the French Lady and she told me in French, that my smile had done her a great deal of good. She kissed me on the cheek and wished me well. After that day, I am more conscious about the act of smiling.
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    Jan 25 2012: I love playing the "smile" game in an elevator. Smile and make eye contact with complete strangers in an elevator and wait for the response. 99 out of 100 will smile back. Most will start a conversation too. Great things happen in short amounts of time and sending that happy ripple into the world is always fulfilling.
  • Jan 25 2012: I'm from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can't walk down a city street without getting a smile from everyone you pass. It's just part of the culture, and it's wonderful.
  • Jan 25 2012: This is a wonderful concept to start a day. Smiling and laughter actually are not just a reflection of happiness but also a cause, and one that can impact all those who see it. In a world where we concentrate on more rules and measures to make life easier but only end up complicating things and increasing stress levels it would be great to see the smile elevated through recognition of its worth
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx Rosemary! In my new TED Book I wrote about my habit to smile first thing when I wake up on the morning... it's such an easy and simple act - but it makes a huge difference for the entire day to come... I highly recommend this to everyone - it's such an easy way to start every day (even the ones that end up not being that great), with an optimistic outlook on life
  • ki ak

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    Jan 25 2012: a pure smile comes from within and is the expression of a pure heart. i do not see how a GNS index could increase smiles, but that could just be limited vision on my part. anything we try to confine with measurements will eventually wither. a pure smile will connect with another pure smile, even if the only vessel is a blurred photo. taking time to be still is key for me. if we all stopped chasing "happiness", we'd be surprised how quickly it finds us.
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      Jan 25 2012: Love it Ki Ak! what a great sentence: " if we all stopped chasing "happiness", we'd be surprised how quickly it finds us." With your permission, I will use it in future talks about smiling :)
      • ki ak

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        Jan 25 2012: of course. :)
  • Jan 25 2012: i think this would make life a hell of a lot more fun! I support this 100%!!
  • Jan 25 2012: My personal view on this is that happiness should always have been the main factor too look into.

    A happy life is more worth then a life full of richness and sadness.
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    Jan 25 2012: Such a cool idea! BTW I smiled while reading your post. And I totally agree smiling lifts up the feeling. If you really want to test it? Just Stand in front of the mirror and smile for 5 mins and see how better you'll start feeling. And when I smile and feel better I work better I'm more conscious. Also I believe the ultimate goal of our life is happiness and smiling leads to happiness. I would really really like to see this implemented in near future this world will definitely be a better place!
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx Kuldeep :)
      The mirror exercise is a great idea... When conducting research for my book I received a lot of comments from friends and connections in Social Media who told me how they exercise smiling and feel the impact of it... It's really astonishing to discover how such a simple act can make you feel great so quickly and effortlessly!
  • Jan 25 2012: I am a yoga laughter instructor in Montreal and I've been practicing laughing and smiling for several years. I realized that even when I go through difficult times, I easily recuperate since my nature and my laughter practice bring me happiness.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx Orly... Laughter Yoga sounds fun :) Doing the research for my new TED Book on Smiling I was amazed to discover numerous Neuroscience scientific articles who focused on showing the real impact that smiling (and laughter) have on our brains and emotions. We mistakenly think that smiling is a result of feeling good - but there reality is that smiling can actually MAKE you feel great! (and others around you too!)
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    Jan 25 2012: I agree with Gisela. Laughter is a far better in showing honest happiness than smiling. As someone who lives with depression without medication, I for one am a person who smiles all the time to hide my real negative thoughts. I also work as a server, so smiling is required no matter how much of a jerk the person is acting towards me.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx Jasmine,
      In my new TED Book - Smile, I talk a lot about the actually benefit to you and others of smiling regardless of the underlying feeling... In fact, I first realized the personal benefits of smiling while running long distances and feeling quite tired at one point in the run... Even when I felt bad - it was quite astonishing to realize that when I smile I have an instantenous surge of "feeling good" just because of smiling. Charles Darwin called this "the Facial Feedback Response Theory," and it was approved by numerous studies... So I hope that you feel a bit better when you smile, even in difficult situations like you're describing.
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    Jan 25 2012: Thnx Gisela, there are multiple kinds of smiles, some of them genuine, and some just try to hide embarrassment - I did most of my research about the positive effect on you and people around you of genuine smiles that make you and everyone around you feel better :)
    • Jan 25 2012: I don't know about the economics globally, but as an employer, I hire people who smile genuinely, and fire people who don't. I read an article in Time Magazine years ago about the depth into society one person's smile reaches (my smile, makes you smile, which makes your kids smile...), and made it a necessity in my businesses. If people are having a bad day, I tell them it's their job to put on their "game face" ... too may ungenuine looking smiles, and I let them know they need to find a job they enjoy. I want employees who are genuinely happy to be there.
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    Jan 25 2012: I wonder how GNS rankings would look like?
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    Jan 25 2012: A smile says everything to a stranger. It invites conversation, which in turn can lead to insight into what is going on in someone else's life. A smile says that you are human, that you want to connect. I am not sure that it measures progress but it would certainly improve connections between people and encourage openness.
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    Jan 25 2012: Krisztian actually poses a good point, not all people can READ a smile, there are those with facial blindness, & others with..I forget teh syndromes name but they have problems reading facial & emotional ques & actually have to be TAUGHT to do this. Simply smiling at them wouldnt help their cause & in turn should give us as smilers plenty of reason to reach out & do just that, appeal to their condition & in turn CONDITION their smiling. I..know what I mean though I don't know that I relayed it quite the way I'd liked. A philosopher & idea man I am, a great orator, ;) not so much. ;)
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    Jan 25 2012: True smile comes from within. If we are going to measure smiles, then it actually talks about equality. No difference of caste ,creed,language,sex etc. Pure human to human relationship. So if the government wants to start it , then it should take care of need of every man. The Material and Spiritual development of every individual should be thought of. These 2 things act as the wings by which an individual can fly and balance his life. As soon as these are thought of , the country will soon be having a million smiles :)
  • Jan 25 2012: The question that came up in my mind with this discussion is whether smiling is a culturally influenced indicator. Maybe in some cultures a smile is an indicator of being content and happy, while in other cultures there are other gestures that symbolize these feelings. In addition, from my personal experience in some communities being too smiley or happy can be regarded as being fake.
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    Jan 25 2012: Smiling can be from various reasons. How can you connect smiling with economic parameters? Smiling seems to be more of a psychological thing. Some people smile even if they don't have much in their possession and some people don't smile even if they have everything they wanted. Or is it only the "smiling" that we are chasing? Does economics come later?
  • Jan 25 2012: Has anyone experienced or been involved with any of these events ? It would be interesting to measure happiness on this day.
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      Jan 25 2012: Nice! Thnx so much for sharing Deborah! what a simple fun and inspiring slogan they have: "Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile!"
  • Jan 25 2012: Sometime between 1968 and 1971, I came up with the idea of measuring Gross National Happiness (as an indication of the success of a society) by counting the quantity of smiles on the faces of children. A Tibetan took on that idea shortly thereafter, although they do not use the quantity of smiles on the faces of children as their measure.
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      Jan 25 2012: Kudos to you Rhona for coming up with this idea... When I did research for my new TED Book, I discovered that children smile as many as 400 times per day! (whereas 33% of adults smile more than 20 times, and only 14% smile less than 5). I wondered if there's a good way to measure how many time people smile or how often they do! Perhaps it should be based on some self reported average.
      • Jan 25 2012: I wonder why I never got credit for that idea. My name is not even mentioned on Wikopedia on the topic. Oh, well. The most important thing is that the idea is up and running. I'll spend my ego on other things. Whenever my writing has been plagiarized, my first reaction is to be flattered and then a bit of annoyance creeps in. Anyway, perhaps some kind of camera could do it. Maybe Dean Kamen or Ray Kurzweil or somebody else can invent a device to do it. Anything positive is possible I say repeatedly.
  • Jan 25 2012: It sounds like a logical idea, given the shift we've been making from survival to growth--- would we go about measuring the Gross National Smiling Index? I'm not very familiar with how even the GDP is measured, but I assume the GNS would be easier to measure and understand?
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      Jan 25 2012: Great question Ashley... I wonder what people think about how we should go about and measure the GNS index... wish we had an economist in the room to weigh in on this one - should be a fascinating discussion on what are the parameters that should count in a GNS.
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        Jan 25 2012: May be a questionnaire could be given to every citizen and asked about the basic needs and few extra things which make their living comfortable. i am just giving a vague idea, but may work out. :)
      • Jan 25 2012: GDP measures all economic transactions that are recorded in a society, i.e. all things that are bought for money.

        A correct measure of smiles would be a wonderful tool (and goal) for politicians. But how do we measure it?

        I guess we have to constantly monitor the population in order to keep track of their smiles, which will cost our privacy. Or we would have to send people questionnaires, which would likely be very inaccurate as the most genuine smilling happens unconsciously. Just like we cannot count all economic transactions into GDP, such as those occurring in the black market, we won't be able to measure all smiles into Gross National Smiling. Probably very few of them to be honest.

        Also, like Gisela said, how do we separate a fake smile from a real one? Smiles can be of different quality depending on how genuine and strong the feeling of happiness is. Again, the same goes for GDP. Monetary transactions can be of different qualities, depending on how genuine and informed the trade participants are. A rushed buying decision based on a persuasive seller's arguments likely produces less value for a consumer than a planned buying decision with advice from experts. But unfortunately, this isn’t captured by GDP.

        Lies can make us happy temporarily, until we discover the truths. Will this mean politicians will have incentives to lie to make us smile in the short-term? This problem is actually very significant when using GDP as well. Most economic transactions carry additional costs on third-parties not accounted for, so called externalities, such as pollution, resource depletion or abuse of laborers in third-world countries that lack protection from laws and societies. Many times, economic transactions only account for direct and short-term values, and miss out on important indirect and long-term values, which was what likely caused the financial crisis. This is directly reflected in GDP as well.

      • Jan 25 2012: ...

        A Gross National Smiling index will likely also be difficult to compare across countries because of cultural differences in smiling. A certain level of smiling might mean one thing in one culture and something else in another. Yet again, the same goes for GDP. Different cultures and socities might prefer different levels of output; some people simply prefer more free time over more income, which is likely reflected in their culture as well.

        The main problem with GDP is that it uses money as a measurement, and money is a flawed measure of value, which many are not aware about. Unfortunately, we have the same problem with other measurements as well, so one cannot easily replace the other. But I really think we should introduce alternative measurements into our politics, because the more measures we have the better, as long as we’re aware of their flaws.
  • Jan 25 2012: The plots I've seen of Gross National Happiness show a weekly periodic behavior... do you see similar time variation with smiling?
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      Jan 25 2012: I'm sure there will be! we don't smile all the time - so it will reflect in the graph... but perhaps the awareness of smiling and how it impacts our lives will make us to more of it and feel better more often :)
  • Jan 25 2012: Great to see this post as smiling has been on my mind all day. January in the UK is very, very glum and the dark days are really hard to work through. The constant weight of the economy is weighing every one down and all we hear about is what is wrong and how nobody knows how to fix it. Unfortunately for most people regardless of how the economy is repaired or what changes are taken to fix it life will remain the same. The same issues will need to be addressed daily and even if there is financial stability there will be moral and emotional instability. I couldn't help but wonder this morning as I queued for my coffee how much nicer it would have been if someone had smiled at me instead of pushing me, closing the door in my face, grimacing when I held the door open for them etc etc I am a firm believer in demonstrating what I believe and so I personally make the effort to smile at my barista, the lady next to me, the person at the door or whoever else I make contact with. Living alongside each other in whatever country should involve interaction and a smile is the greatest 'social breaker' we all have. It costs nothing and goes a long way - much more than what can be said for GDP. Thanks for the thoughts.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx for your inspiring words Deborah!
      Being the change you want to see in the world is something that I totally buy-into :) And smiles are an awesome vehicle for this, as they are evolutionary contagious, and we as humans mimic smiles unconsciously - so when you smile at people on the street, even randomly, they will smile back at you, and feel better, and in turn smile at other people and create a huge ripple effect :)
      • Jan 25 2012: Thanks Ron. I'm going to keep working on the 'smile campaign' - particularly for those who try to pretend that they can't see other people in public. It is too easy to be glum - we should 'smile our way through', the tougher the opponent (often ourselves) the wider the grin. :)
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    Jan 25 2012: i enjoy things that do not in any way induce smiling. i enjoy knowledge, creation, progress, science, technology, exploration, comfort. in a world which sets its goal to increase smiling, i will feel abandoned.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx for your comment Krisztián, looking on your profile photo it seems that you're a natural "smiler" ... not everything needs to be measured, and not everyone has to measure! I've personally found that measuring something that is important for me helps me be more focused on it, and do more or less of it as I desire.
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        Jan 25 2012: it is disguise
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          Jan 25 2012: Do you know what you were smiling at?

          Did you smile because you knew the picture was for your TED spot?

          Is this an old picture of you? Are you now old and bald?

          Why not change your picture?

          Just some questions that popped into my head.

          Your smile is beautiful by the way.

          "A smile is the best way to improve one's looks for free"
    • Jan 25 2012: Smiling on the inside is something that lots of people feel comfortable with. Your face may not show it but your soul feels it.
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    Jan 25 2012: Gisela ;) smiling under duress, Brilliant. Helping people realise the good that comes from bad experiences, maybe one of the most important lessons one can be taught, something can always be learned, gained & taken from a bad experience. From acceptance, to resilience,, strength, courage. Brilliant observation.
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    Jan 25 2012: Well, I think we should simply ask ourselves. What makes us smile now? Connectedness, to ourselves as well as our environment, we could see how we could improve on the social & mental well being of others as friends if not as, an extension of ourselves. We could do the same for our environments on small scales like neighborhood gardens to national scales like, a new monument, Made for the people, by the people. Just a thought. When doesn't charity or good will make others smile, we could create a group or committee made of of individuals from each nation providing to & for each nation on one level or another based on that nations needs. The ideas are as endless as teh people we look to bring smiles to. We need only the will, the way after that, is sure to come.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx Bruno! Love your comment :)
      After researching and speaking/writing about smiling for a while now, it's become clear to me that a lot of the benefit that we can get out of smiling come from our own INTENT. Taking a moment to take a deep breath, and a break from the continuous race of life, and simply smile, helps us come back to the here-and-now, and simply enjoy living.
      • Jan 25 2012: My experience after living 5 years in UK and coming back to Colombia (always in the top 10 of happiest countries) is that British have an excellent sense of humour (even better than Colombians) but they don´t enjoy themselves enough. An event in UK that takes out a short laughter in Colombia would escalate into a party. We call it in Colombia "recocha" and it is like a sequence of funny comments as reaction to one spontaneous or deliberate stimulus that escalates into more a more laughter and a very good and relaxing ambience. "Recocha" is a social and witty response that should be incorporated in British and other industrialised countries. In this aspect emergent economies are a good example to follow.
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    Jan 25 2012: Another interesting study that I cover in my new TED Book "Smile" that was conducted by Jennifer Aaker at Stanford and a few other collaborators at Stanford and Harvard actually shows that it's much easier to make someone happier by making them smile rather than by making them happy. Simply speaking, smiling has a lower barrier to adoption and repetition than happiness - that is a concept that is much harder to put our arms around. And it's easier and more fulfilling too :)
    • Jan 25 2012: This reminds me of the quote by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh - “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” When I'm in an off mood, I practice smiling and I find within a minute or less my energy has totally changed. Smiles are the new drug!
      • Jan 25 2012: Fred - I totally agree with this quote. It's a small gesture, but it really can change your state of mind.
  • Jan 25 2012: Smiles are powerful. My 10-year-old went to school extremely emotional and grumpy yesterday. When I picked her up from school she was in a wonderful mood. I asked her what made the difference; how did she turn her day around. She replied, "I put on a fake smile, and it worked."
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    Jan 25 2012: I work with first year university students and I have found that my students often just need a smile to turn their day around. Love this question!
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      Jan 25 2012: Thnx Shannon :) It's amazing how sometime just smiling at people for no reason can transform a situation and make it so much more enjoyable. I start my new TED Book with a story about a trip in rural Zambia I took a few years ago, and how a few smiles completely transformed a pretty tense situation to a very enjoyable one, and how I made a bunch of friends in just a few hours in an otherwise stressful situation.
  • Jan 25 2012: I really like the tangibility of smiling! At any given moment, you could look around a room and judge the 'GNS'. If it became widely accepted, I bet you would see more individuals taking responsibility for putting smiles on the faces of others - volunteering, paying it forward, etc....
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    Jan 25 2012: I could see using laughter as a measure, but people often smile under duress - such as a deeply annoyed waitress continuing to smile while desiring to pour a pot of coffee over your head.

    Well, there goes my fallback career in waitressing.
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    Jan 25 2012: Welcome :)
    • Jan 25 2012: A smile gives a nice impact on a face however we are strangers and regardless of social, gender, and class differences, it shows that we are all humans.