How it started

A Traveler Epiphany

Meps on a plane
Meps is ready to smile at fellow passengers

In the fall of 2017, author Margaret Meps Schulte was traveling through a busy airport with her suitcase full of books. Her epiphany occurred in an unlikely place: The ladies’ room. Juggling her luggage, she happened to catch the eye of another stressed, heavily-laden passenger. Without speaking, Meps smiled at the woman and saw a surprised smile light up her face. She felt buoyed-up by the encounter and decided to conduct an experiment as she traveled that day.

Meps began deliberately smiling at people, regardless of whether they were smiling at her. She noticed that they often seemed startled and then smiled back. She recalled a Purdue University study proving that people are adversely, but subconsciously, impacted when strangers ignore them. (“Being Ignored Hurts, Even by a Stranger.”) If we are positively affected by simply being noticed, imagine how much more powerful it is when someone smiles at us!

Gratified by the results of her airport experiment, Meps decided to teach the simple practice to others.

I Smile First garners community support

Scooter and teddy bear tree
Hank Schulte in the Dunedin Holiday parade

In November of 2017, she presented the I Smile First concept at a grant salon held at AfterBurn: Restoration in Bartow, Florida. AfterBurn is an annual event modeled on the 10 Principles of Burning Man. Members in attendance voted to give her a Burnt Oranges Community Action Grant to launch I Smile First in the Tampa Bay area.

I Smile First was launched at the Dunedin, Florida Holiday Parade, with a group of 10 marchers dressed in teddy bear hats. Handing out I Smile First cards, they were accompanied by a “Teddy Bear Christmas Tree” parade float pulled by Meps’ Dad, Hank Schulte, on his electric scooter.

After the event, an I Smile First informational display was placed at the Mease Manor Retirement Community in Dunedin. It featured the much-loved Teddy Bear Tree, which brought smiles to all who passed through the lobby.

The legacy of The Happy Spot

Happy SpotMeps has been working to increase happiness and positivity since 2009, when she created “The Happy Spot.” The concept is simple: Designate a spot that is happy, put yourself in it, and feel happy. At Burning Man, she marked a small square on the ground, placed a sign, and watched the happiness impact passers-by. A few years later, she created Happy Spot cards, portable versions of the same idea. They provide instructions for creating your own Happy Spot: “Set card on floor. Stand on spot. Feel happy.” (Learn more about Happy Spots.)

Watching friends and family pass out Happy Spot cards led Meps to create the Smile Cards that will spread the I Smile First message around the world.