Even before the pandemic effectively scuttled human interaction, city officials in Rifle say they noticed that neighbors just weren’t being that neighborly anymore. People were looking at their phones instead of saying hello to each other on the street; COVID-19 only made things worse.
“Many people are even scared to look at you like you’re gonna get the cooties if your eyes meet, and I can’t stand it. I don’t want to live in that kind of world,” said Rifle City Manager Scott Hahn.
Cue the Rifle Humanity Restoration Crew—a new public outreach campaign organized by the city. Volunteer Humanity Restoration Crew members stand on street corners smiling and waving at passersby at “Hello Rodeos” every few weeks, carrying signs reminding residents to “Have a Great Day” and to “Smile and Wave.” City officials have been passing out happy face pins and bumper stickers as part of the program, and they even produced a bilingual music video to promote the campaign. City Manager Scott Hahn appears in the city’s promotional music video wearing a smiley-face hardhat and t-shirt, while others dance on street corners and in parking lots.
“The best thing about doing the Hello Rodeos is when you can see the facial expressions of the people driving by because at first they give you that, ‘What are we protesting now?’ look,” said Kathy Pototsky, Rifle’s court administrator and public information officer. “Then they’re seeing a sign that says ‘Smile, Have a Great Day’ and all of sudden you see their face light up.”
It might seem unconventional, but there’s real science behind the Rifle Humanity Restoration Crew’s methods, according to researchers who study positive psychology. That’s a newer field that looks at the link between individual and societal well-being. Benefits of kindness have been linked to increased happiness and decreased negative emotions like depression, and physical benefits like increased cardiovascular health and boosting energy and strength in older adults.
Dr. Amy Gallagher is a psychologist and Vice President of Whole Health LLC, a subsidiary of Mind Springs Health. She says kindness is even contagious.
“Some of the research suggests that when kindness is done to you that that creates up to three degrees of separation from that first person who did kindness,” she said. “So, your kindness that you did to somebody else might be affecting three people whom you might not even know.”
Gallagher adds that particularly during the pandemic, greeting others can have a profound impact on the doer and the receiver’s mental health.
“You can still smile with your eyes if you’re wearing a mask and kind of light up, or hold the door for somebody,” said Gallagher.
City officials in Rifle say that even though they rolled out the Rifle Humanity Restoration Crew during the pandemic, they plan to keep things going long term. They’ve been hearing from municipal leaders in other areas who want to implement similar programs, and feedback from residents has been positive—despite some eyerolls early on. The City of Rifle’s Pototsky says people really need a program like this right now.
“Particularly in the past couple of months where we’ve had the fires, and we’ve had the political divisiveness and we’ve had the social unrest, a lot of that is just making people really uneasy,” she said.
City Manager Scott Hahn says he hopes that friendliness and approachability becomes a culture that Rifle’s known for.
“We want Rifle to be a place to come home to, not just a place to end up at the end of the day,” he said.
As the pandemic continues into winter, officials say they hope that outlook makes things a little easier.