Photos in this article are from my on-going “Only in America” series.
I’m currently reading a lovely book titled: “A Philosopher’s Notes: On optimal living, creating an authentically awesome life and other such goodness.” It is a easy and insightful read– and I have been savoring the book so far.
In one of the chapters, I stumbled upon “12 Scientifically Proven Ways to Have More Happiness in Life” via the book “The How of Happiness“. The list is as follows:
- Expressing Gratitude
- Cultivating Optimism
- Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
- Practicing Acts of Kindness
- Nurturing Social Relationships
- Developing Strategies for Coping
- Learning to Forgive
- Increasing Flow Experiences
- Savoring Life’s Joys
- Committing to Your Goals
- Practicing Religion and Spirituality
- Taking Care of Your Body
I found the list to echo everything in the self-help and philosophic literature I have read so far. And of course in the spirit of this blog– I wanted to link the concepts of happiness and street photography.
So how can you “scientifically” gain more happiness in street photography? Here are some ideas I glued together:
1. Expressing Gratitude
I think one of the most important things in life is to be grateful for what you have. Not for what you don’t have– but what you currently have, in this moment.
It doesn’t have to be physical things such as material wealth. It can be things you have in terms of love, companionship, and relationships you have with close friends and family.
I am extremely blessed to have what I have in my life. I have the freedom to travel, write, take photos, and meet passionate street photographers from all around the world. Yet there is still a great source of dissatisfaction within me.
I am easily jealous of others. I’m jealous how I don’t have exhibitions in famous galleries. I’m jealous how I don’t have a major book deal. I’m jealous how other photographers have more followers than me. I’m jealous that other photographers make better photos than me.
It is funny– because I always thought that once I had “100+ likes/favorites” on my photos and I did photography full-time, I would be eternally happy and grateful (read my article: “On Social Media and Street Photography“).
Since then, I have tried to be more grateful of the things that I have in my life.
One thing which I do is keep a “gratitude” journal. Every night before I sleep I try to write down 3 things I’m grateful for. If I don’t write this down, I share with my “favorite thing of the day” with Cindy verbally.
I, like many others, can fall victim to wanting more cameras, more followers, more money, more influence. More, more, more.
But I try to take a step back and rather count my blessings. Things I’m grateful for:
- Having a camera to take photos with.
- Having the chance to meet other passionate street photographers in-person.
- Living in a time where social media allows me to connect with anybody in the world.
- Having access to free books (libraries) and inspirational images (magnumphotos.com).
- Having my eyesight to take photos.
- Having a healthy body to go out for walks and shoot.
In the grand scheme of things, even being thankful for the things above help foster a sense of gratitude– and helps bring more happiness in my life and photography.
2. Cultivating Optimism
Have you ever had a moment when you saw “The Decisive Moment”– but you missed it? Either your camera settings were wrong, the camera was still in your bag (or even worse, at home), or you weren’t quick enough.
It has happened to me tons of times– and it is easy for me to become discouraged that I will never take “as good” as a photograph.
I think in photography having a sense of optimism and tenacity is what helps us become great. Don’t think that your best work is behind you. Rather, think that the best work is yet to come.
So regardless of how old (or young) you are, and regardless of what cameras or lenses you own– stay optimistic. Jack Simon just turned 70 years old, and picked up photography only 6 years ago (when he was 63). He is easily one of the best contemporary color street photographers out there (watch my video with him). Another student named Richard Reed is 73 years old, and just picked up photography a year ago. Now he is dedicating all of his energy to photography (as he is retiring next year).
Realize how fortunate you are to even be alive to take photographs. Even if you have a smartphone– that is good enough for street photography (check out the guys from the “Tiny Collective“).
So always be optimistic and know that you haven’t taken your best street photograph yet. It is yet to come.
3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
One thing that I read which was interesting is that on a day-to-day basis, 80% of our thoughts are negative. They call this an “ANT” (automatic negative thought). When we over-think things, we often become more dissatisfied with our lives.
Another source of dissatisfaction in our lives is comparing ourselves with others. Nothing in life is absolute– it is all relative. This means even though we make a cozy $40,000 a year salary, we feel poor compared to our boss making $200,000 a year (even though $40,000 a year is a ton of money compared to the rest of the world). Even though we drive a BMW, we feel poor compared to our neighbor who drives a Maserati. Even though we shoot with a Leica camera, we feel poor compared to the guy who has a a Leica camera and every other lens that exists.
I find that as street photographers– we often overthink too much when we are on the streets. This means that before taking a photograph, we hesitate too much before shooting. We worry too much about the composition, framing, or how the subject is going to respond.
However in those moments of hesitation– you just need to shoot. Channel your inner gut and instinct, and just shoot. I think it is better to get a bad photograph of a scene (than no photograph of a scene).
Furthermore, don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be someone with more followers/likes/favorites than you. Even though I have a huge amount of followers (55,000+ on Facebook, 25,000+ on Twitter, etc) I still feel inadequate to guys who have 200,000+ followers.
Rather than comparing yourself to others– compare yourself to your past self.
What I mean by that is compete with yourself, not others. Continuously make small progress in your photographs. If you continuously get better in photography day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, you will feel more happiness.
4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
There is a famous experiment in which a researcher gives two groups of students $20 and tells them the following:
- Group A: Spend the $20 on yourself
- Group B: Spend the $20 on a stranger (or friend, family, etc)
After Group A/B gave away their money, the researchers asked the two groups about their happiness levels. Guess who was happier?
Yup you guessed it– Group B.
Group A (who spent $20 on themselves) bought themselves a few coffees or a t-shirt, and didn’t really feel that much happier. However Group B felt much more happiness giving away the $20 to either a stranger in need, or a friend or family.
Ironically enough, we think that buying more stuff for ourselves will bring us more happiness. Or at least that is what advertising/marketing tell us in the media.
I have personally found that buying myself cameras have only brought me fleeting happiness (for a month or so). However all the cameras I have given away to friends and those in need have given me this warm fuzzy feeling that still permeates until today.
So if you want more happiness in your photography and everyday life, practice random acts of kindness. They don’t need to be big or expensive gestures. They can be small and meaningful. Some ideas:
- Donate some time to teach photography at a local high school, community center, or elderly center.
- Leave a helpful and constructive critique to another photographer on social media.
- Donate a camera to a photography program or someone in need.
- Print out a photograph and give it to a friend/loved one.
- Email a photographer whose work you admire, and give them a compliment.
5. Nurturing Social Relationships
No man is his own island. We cannot live by ourselves in a vacuum. We are social beings. Without social contact, we get depressed, go crazy, and die.
If there is anything sociology has taught me– it is that having meaningful social relationships are one of the most important things in our life.
For me, I love photography dearly. But it isn’t just the picture-taking that I enjoy. I enjoy meeting other photographers. I enjoy going out and shooting with other photographers. I enjoy teaching other photographers. I enjoy talking about photography and looking at images with other photographers. And like everyone else– I like geeking out over cameras with other photographers.
Even though photography is mostly a solitary activity (you can shoot by yourself)– I think meeting other photographers afterwards is highly enjoyable. Not only that, but I enjoy shooting with other photographers (being a pretty social guy). I don’t take my best photographs when shooting with others, but I far enjoy the social contact and being able to grab a coffee, lunch, or a beer afterwards together.
6. Developing Strategies for Coping
Life is hard. Shit often hits the fan. It happens to everybody.
But the way in which we cope with negative experiences in our lives is subjective.
For example, if you lost your job, you can think of the situation in two ways:
a) I just lost my job and I will never get another job. I am going to go bankrupt, my life sucks. What did I do to deserve this?
b) I just lost my job, and this really sucks. But perhaps this is a blessing in disguise? Now I don’t have to work that job I hate, and perhaps see if I can do some freelance work or get another job which I am more passionate about? This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Reality isn’t objective. We can shape and form it the way we want.
When I got laid off my job around 3 years ago, I faced a similar situation to that above. At first I was freaking out (I had little/no money in savings, tons of student/credit card debt, and no stability). But I thought of getting laid off as the best thing that happened to me– a blessing in disguise. I took a negative experience in my life and reframed it into a positive one. I turned the sour lemon in my life, added sugar, and made lemonade.
I think in street photography we face a lot of negative situations. Some negative experiences that I have experienced (and how I reframed them in a positive way)
- Getting yelled at by a stranger (I realized getting yelled at wasn’t such a big deal, and used this to build my courage)
- Getting the cops called on me (I stood my ground, and the cops eventually came and told me I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Now I have more confidence to stand my ground for my photographic rights).
- Getting my photographs criticized online (I realized I can’t please everyone with my photographs. But it is better to polarize people with your images– either have people really like your photos or really hate your photos, rather than just mildly liking your photos.
So remember every negative situation is a blessing for you to build more strength, resiliency, and courage.
7. Learning to Forgive
I once heard something like: “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”
I have dealt with tons of negative criticism on my blog, on social media, on my photos, on my personality– both online and offline.
At first I took it all very personally. I started to get angry and resentful towards those who left anonymous and nasty comments. This anger and feelings of frustration would keep me up at night– as I would think of clever come-backs and ways to defend myself.
I soon realized that all of that energy dealing with negativity wasn’t worth it. I would rather take my energy and use it for a positive good. To continue making photos. To continue writing articles. To continue meeting other passionate street photographers and sharing my love of street photography.
So I learned to both ignore and forgive the negativity out there. It is extremely difficult, but here are some tips I have used to better forgive others:
- The person who does/says something nasty about you or your photos might not be physically or mentally well: Who knows if someone in their family just died, they are going through a divorce, or just found out they have cancer? Perhaps they are just trying to find an outlet for all their negativity– and it happens to be upon you.
- It is better to be criticized than ignored: I find that my most popular articles are the most controversial ones. I read by philosopher Nassim Taleb that the worst thing a writer can be is boring. So by getting lots of negative criticism– it means I’m not boring, and what I am writing about is interesting (which should be a compliment).
- The way you interpret words/actions from others is subjective: When people criticize us or do/say something nasty about us– it isn’t their words which hurt us. It is our interpretation of those words which hurt us. So I always give the other person the benefit of the doubt and say to myself: “Perhaps that person said that mean thing to me to be brutally honest– and wants to help me.” Of course this isn’t always the case– but I found that reframing my thoughts like this help me greatly.
8. Increasing Flow Experiences
One of the best things about street photography is when we are on the streets, exploring, getting lost, and making photos– we fall into a state of “flow.” We are “in the zone”
time stops, we lose sense of our physical bodies, and we are supremely happy.
I often find myself most dissatisfied with my photography when I am sitting at home on my laptop. I think about the cameras I want to buy, the followers I want to gain, the more money I want to earn, and the more status I want to gain.
But once I go out for a walk and hit the streets– all of these negative thoughts go away. I just get “in the zone”
it is like a zen-like walking meditation.
So whenever you are dissatisfied with your camera gear or anything else in photography (or life)
just go out for a walk and bring along your camera. You don’t have to make the most amazing images. Simply savor the experience to be outside and experiencing life (while making photos on the side).
9. Savoring Life’s Joys
It is easy to be dissatisfied when you are thinking about the past and the future. But these are two things you can’t control or change.
You can’t change the past. It has already happen. The residue of the past is often negative thoughts and feelings. Regrets of things we wish we did. Regrets of things we did already (and screwed up). Negative emotions and feelings from people we no longer spend time with.
You can’t control the future. We don’t know if by-chance we will get hit by a bus or have some sort of rare disease. 100 years ago nobody could have predicted that the internet would be invented. And we don’t even have flying cars (yet).
I think true happiness is finding joy in the present moment. To savor life– what you are currently doing.
I think a good analogy is like having a meal: you don’t enjoy your food if you simply chew it quickly, and inhale your food. You need to take small bites, smell the aromas, and let the flavors swish around in your mouth. You want to appreciate and enjoy the food right before you.
I think life is the same way. Sometimes we power through life too quickly. We forget to stop and smell the roses.
When it comes to photography, I try to enjoy the present moment. When I’m walking on the streets and camera-in-hand, I savor the people I meet, the sights I see, and the smells and sounds of the city. I feel the weight of the camera in my hand and tell myself how grateful I am to even own a camera, and have the freedom to go out and make photographs.
When I am reading a photography book, I savor the images I look at. I try not to think about the photography books I don’t own. I put all of my present energy on the images I am currently looking at.
When I am editing my work, I don’t think about the photos I took in the past or the photos I have yet to take. I think about the photographs right before me– and try to make the best editing decisions before my very eyes.
10. Committing to Your Goals
We all have values, goals, and a sense of what we think is “virtuous.” We are all passionate about street photography. We love humanity. We love people. We love capturing emotions and moments. We love being in the streets.
We all also have different goals when it comes to photography. Some of us want to be full-time photographers. Some of us want to get a lot of followers on social media. Some of us shoot to please ourselves. Some of us don’t want to become the world’s best photographer– we just want to enjoy traveling and taking some snapshots along the way.
I don’t think any of the goals we set in photography is “right” or “wrong.” It is all personal at the end of the day.
However I still think we need a common goal in our lives to keep us motivated and encouraged.
For me, I have found that chasing more followers/money/fame in photography to bring me more dissatisfaction than happiness.
Now, my goal isn’t to be the world’s best photographer. Rather, I know the goal of my life is to spread as much information, knowledge, and wisdom about photography. Not to say that I know everything. I am still a student and have a lot to learn in photography. But it is my passion to simply share everything I have learned– in the hope of helping others.
So whatever the goal in your photography is– write it down. And stick to it. I recommend choosing a goal which brings you true happiness and self-gratification. A goal which is greater than yourself.
11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
Of course religion and spirituality is a touchy subject in the world. We generally shy away from such talks. Lots of countries fight over religion, and go to war and kill each other.
I am not saying you have to be religious or spiritual– but research has shown that those who are religious or spiritual tend to be much happier and live longer than those who aren’t.
You don’t need to join an organized religion. But I think it comes down to being mindful, grateful, generous and loving to others, and virtuous.
I think to be “spiritual” as a street photographer is to treat your subjects in the street with love and compassion, to be grateful for what you have, and to create meaningful images that will hopefully inspire others.
12. Taking Care of Your Body
Lastly, exercise and physical well-being is one of the best ways to bring happiness to our lives. In a study, they found that exercise is as effective as prescribing an anti-depressant to someone.
Fortunately for us street photographers– street photography is an excuse to make photos (and get some exercise). If you think about it, street photography is a full-body exercise. We need to sprint to get certain shots, crouch down for better angles, and walk for long periods in search of the “decisive moment.”
Besides street photography, one of my hobbies is power-lifting. I am a big fan of squats and deadlifts– and I have found them to keep me in tip-top shape for street photography. I have no problems quickly squatting for low-angle shots in the streets. However I should probably run more, to get more endurance to walk long distances.
I think that we all want to be happy in our lives and with our photography. To sum things up, I think ultimately we should shoot for ourselves and not others. We can’t ever gain true happiness in our work if we don’t please ourselves.
Furthermore, I think we should continue to be grateful for what we have. So much of photography is about dissatisfaction: Dissatisfaction of the cameras we own, the lenses we own, and tablets/phones. We are dissatisfied with the number of favorites/followers/likes/views we get on our images. I try to remind myself: as long as my images inspire at least one human being, I have done my job as a photographer. And I think all of us have at least inspired one other individual with our photography.
Lastly, don’t forget to have fun. Street photography should be fun– otherwise, why are you shooting? Shoot with an open heart, and a big smile. Savor every photograph, footstep, and individual you meet in the street. You only live once, so let’s make it count.
Further reading on happiness
Here are some other articles I recommend on the topic of happiness/street photography:
- 8 Ways How Money Can Buy You Happiness in Street Photography
- How to Be Grateful For What You Have
- On Happiness and Street Photography
- On Shooting for Your “Inner Scorecard”
Books on Happiness
Below are some of my favorite books on happiness:
- The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want
- Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
- How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life
- Seneca: Letters from a Stoic
- Marcus Aurelius: The Emperor’s Handbook (Meditations)
If you want to learn more, you can read more of my articles on philosophy.