The Avoidance of Unhappiness

The Mission, SF. 2015
The Mission, SF. 2015

Dear friend,

I wanted to share some ideas with you on my mind; one of them being on happiness.

I want to be happy (just like you)— but I am constantly tormented. I am tormented by all the stuff I don’t have, and all the stuff I would like to have. I daydream about having a new 12’’ Macbook retina (the small one), even though I have a 13’’ Macbook pro (it feels too heavy). I daydream about owning a Leica Monochrom (even though I have a film Leica MP which I love to death). I daydream about having sports cars (Mazda Miata, Subaru WRX/STI) even though I know I don’t need a car. I daydream about getting a new smartphone (Nexus 6P or iPhone 6S) even though my Samsung Galaxy S6 is perfect.

I have no idea where all of my materialism comes from, and where these random new desires come from. I already have all the physical possessions I need in my life (digital Ricoh GR, Macbook Pro, Galaxy S6 Smartphone), and I have more stuff I don’t use sitting back at my apartment in Berkeley (Kindle Paperwhite, iPad Air). Why do I lust or seek for things that I don’t need?

Let me think out loud:

First of all, I think I am a sucker to advertising and marketing. Whenever I walk by an Apple store, of course I need to enter. Upon entering, I see all the dazzling new gadgets, and I touch all the stuff in there (even though I will never buy it). I then begin to desire shit I don’t need. But had I never entered the store, I would have never had those desires.

Secondly, a lot of it is based on the company I keep. I have friends who have fancy cars, cameras, tons of money in the bank, and I am always (either consciously or subconsciously) comparing myself to them. So when I hear that my friend is selling his Leica Monochrom, I get tempted to buy it (once again, even though I don’t need it).

Thirdly, I am a sucker for advertising. I always though I was impervious to it, but no my friend— I am a fucking sucker for it. It is actually quite creepy— I’ve been using Google products since I was 18 years old (Gmail) and Google Chrome ever since it came out. I loved how it sync’d all my personal data, and how it made my life easier. I couldn’t tell you how many times Google Maps saved my life.

However, Google is starting to know my browsing history a little too well. Now whenever I see ads on the internet (banner ads by Google Adsense) they are super-specific to me, and are trying to advertise cars, smartphones, and devices that I have been growing on Google or Amazon. I am starting to get freaked out a bit— and these advertisements cause my urges for these materialistic things to pop up again.

It is almost like trying to kick a nicotine habit or trying to stop being an alcoholic. You need to avoid your friends or places that remind you of the activity.

For example, if I were a smoker and I wanted to quit smoking, I wouldn’t hang out with friends who were “social smokers.” Similarly; I would avoid pool halls, casinos, and other establishments where everyone else smokes (or else I will be tempted).

Similarly, if I were an alcoholic who were trying to get sober; I would stop hanging out with my buddies who were heavy-drinkers, and also avoid bars, sporting events, and other places where I would be tempted by a cocktail or a beer.

So similarly— in photography we need to avoid any sort of places that tempt us to buy shit we don’t need.

First of all, we need to avoid being a sucker for all of these banner-ads on the internet. If you haven’t, I highly recommend running Adblock (or any other browser plugin) to remove advertisements from your computer. Unfortunately I have yet found a plugin to remove Google Adsense from my smartphone (I only have Chrome on my smartphone). I heard of an app called “Purity” for iOS (I have it installed on my iPad) that removes advertisements from Safari. Perhaps this can help.

Secondly, we need to avoid establishments and stores which might rouse our interest to buy shit we don’t need. For example, this means not stepping into a camera store (unless we indeed need to buy a new camera, lens, or some piece of equipment). Furthermore, not browsing gear-review forums, blogs, and websites when we are bored. I am a victim— I was addicted to the gear forums at Fredmiranda when I was working part-time as an IT student in college, and also would constantly browse Craigslist and eBay for deals on lenses and cameras I lusted after (but didn’t really need).

Thirdly, we need to keep our distance from friends and colleagues who are obsessed with gear (you know, that friend who is always buying the newest digital camera that comes out). After all, I am not immune either— all my friends bought the Sony A7R II, and I was tempted by it and started to go on Preview to check out reviews and stuff. That led me down a rabbit hole which caused me to become dissatisfied with the gear I already own (film Leica MP and digital Ricoh GR)— and caused me to start to rationalize all these lame excuses to buy one:

“Oh Eric, but it is cheaper than a digital Leica, and you can use your Leica lens on it with a M-mount adapter! Well, shooting film is so expensive, you would actually save money by buying one! Think about all that extra sharpness and detail you can get from the camera, and how that will make your work look medium-format. Perhaps your street portraits can even look like Richard Avedon’s portraits!”

Fortunately I was able to slap myself silly, take an icy cold shower, have a few shots of espresso, then hitting the streets with my Ricoh GR and taking some photos cured my illness.

The avoidance of unhappiness

To change gears a bit, I want to also share an idea I have been thinking with you about “happiness” — specifically the avoidance of “unhappiness.”

So we are always told that we should “be happy.” We should “seek” happiness. People tell us, “Do what make you happy.” If you had more money you would be more happy. If you had a bigger house, you would be more happy. If you had a more expensive house you would be more happy. If you have a faster car, you will be more happy. If your camera has more megapixels, you will be more happy.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. It is removing things that make us happy which causes us to be happy. To clarify— I believe that reducing or subtracting stressful or painful things from our life will make us happier.

For example, reducing the time of your commute to work is one of the best things you can do for your happiness. If your commute to work is 1-2 hours long, you would probably be happier paying more for rent and living within a 15-minute walk to your work (even if that means you will spend more money).

If you want to be healthier, it means removing “unhealthy” things from your diet (sugar, simple carbs, processed foods). Adding “healthy foods” (blueberries, kale salad) won’t make you “healthier” if you are still eating hamburgers from McDonalds.

Ironically enough, I have personally found out that removing the cameras and lenses from my life has led to more inner-peace (and less stress). When I used to own several cameras and lenses, I would get “paralysis by analysis” or “choice anxiety”— I had too many choices with which camera or lens to use. Even now (I own two cameras, the film Leica and digital Ricoh) I get choice anxiety (“When should I bring my film camera, and when should I bring my digital camera?”) Inevitably, I bring both— and then end up getting choice anxiety when it comes time to take a photograph (should I shoot this scene on film or digital?) I then hesitate for a moment, and often end up missing the shot.

Furthermore, removing negative influences and shitty people from your life is more effective than adding positive people to your life. I know personally, cutting out people who made me feel guilty, shitty, or negative (some people from my family and some acquaintances) led me to much more inner-calm and happiness. Unfortunately, even if I have 10 really amazing positive friends, 1 shitty person can ruin my life. It is kind of similar how even if you have 100 loving people in your life (and 1 horrible boss at work)— you will still be miserable.

More money, more problems. Growing up poor— I always thought that having more money would lead to happiness. Kind of true— but with a caveat: being poor and living in poverty leads to misery. However, if you have enough money to not live in poverty and to not be poor (and stressing out how to make ends meet every month)— having more money won’t lead to more happiness.

For the first time in my life, I finally have some money saved in the bank. But funny enough, the more money I started to save up, the more stress it caused me. I started to feel that I “should” invest it, to buy property, to put it into stocks or bonds, mutual funds, etc. By not investing the money, I felt like I was losing money. And that hurt. My solution? Fuck it— I keep it all in cash in a savings account, and will save it for a rainy day (in-case I get into a near-fatal car accident, someone in my immediate family needs help, and to make me not stress out about being able to pay rent every month). So funny enough, I feel that I was happier and less stressed out when I had less money saved up (but once again, not living paycheck-to-paycheck).

More stuff, more maintenance

So friend, in order to be “happy” in life, we first need to realize that adding things to our life won’t bring more happiness.

I was talking to my friend John Hall (who is like my Zen-master), also a very passionate photographer— and he has done quite well for himself financially and in his career. However he brought up a good point to me, having more stuff causes to more stress and complications— because having more stuff means more stress of having to maintain all of that stuff.

For example, if you have a big house— that means more stress in terms of maintaining your yard (hiring a gardener or doing it yourself), fixing appliances that break (toilet, garage door opener), cleaning (more square footage, more cleaning supplies), more money (home owner fee, property tax, more expensive mortgage), and the added stress of someone perhaps wanting to break into your house.

If you have a nice car, that is also added maintenance. I lust for old-school Mustangs and muscle-cars— but do you realize, how unreliable a car from the 60’s-70’s is? I have a lot of friends who are into fixing up their cars, and they dump tens and thousands of dollars just to make the color of their car different, for their cars to be louder, for their cars to be faster, for their cars to sit lower to the ground, for the interior of their car to be shinier— all for what? To look cool while cruising down the street, revving their engines, and getting admiration from random strangers on the street? At the end of the day, as much as I love cars— what is a car? Just a metal box with 4 wheels that takes you from point A to point B. And no matter how expensive your car, it is going to become a rusty shit-bucket 50 years from now.

That is another tip that I try to use to avoid getting jealous of new cameras that come out: realize they are like iPhones; they will constantly be outdated (even in 2 years time). Think about it— you look at your iPhone 6 (or 6s) and you look at those with iPhone 4’s and even iPhone 5’s and think about how “dated” and how tiny the screen looks. But then again, when you first got the iPhone 4, you remember how amazing, slick, and “revolutionary” it was.

Even with the digital Leicas— when the Leica M9 came out it was on the wishlist of every single street photographer out there. Now with the Leica M240, new Monochrom, the M9 looks like an ancient relic— I mean, have you seen the LCD on it? And the shutter sounds horrible compared to the newer digital Leica’s.

I also look at the Leica Q— which is another highly desired camera (at the time of this writing, November 2015), and it is essentially a rich-man’s Fujifilm x100T (except $3700 more expensive). That camera is going to be outdated in about 2-3 years, when the Leica Q (Mark II or whatever) is going to come out, with better autofocus, more megapixels, a better EVF (or perhaps even optical viewfinder), faster buffer, better LCD screen, and better higher-ISO performance.

I wrote before this in the past— but it is important for us to notice similarities, not differences, when it comes to material things. At the end of the day, a Honda Accord and BMW 3-series (unfortunately) are more similar than dissimilar at the end of the day (both family sedans). Similarly, an iPhone and Android phone are more similar than dissimilar at the end of the day (both are metal slabs with touch-screens that connect to the internet). Also a Fujifilm x100T and Leica Q are much more similar than dissimilar (both are fixed-lens digital cameras). And no unfortunately upgrading from an iPhone 5 to an iPhone 6S won’t change your life for the better (no matter how amazing you think the new “force touch” or whatever is being marketed).

Invest in experiences, not stuff

I am not saying all of this stuff to berate you or put you down. After all, I am the worst consumerist/sucker for advertising/materialistic person I know. I am just trying to share with you what is on my mind, my mental afflictions, my lusts, my desires for shit I don’t need. I just hope that what I am writing to you is of help to you (as it is of help to me).

Whenever I want to buy something, I always try to calculate that in experiences.

For example, let’s say I want to buy a new $30,000 car. Sure that new car might be nice, but would I rather have a nice new car, or rather buy 30-round-trip international tickets, or live for 30 months (2.5 years) in Vietnam without stress?

Would I rather spend $1300 on a new digital camera, or attend a Magnum workshop that will change how I see photography?

Would I rather spend $500 on a new lens, or would I rather invest in 10 really nice photography books (each $50) that will inform and inspire my artistic vision?

Would I rather spend 1 hour of my life reading up on the new camera reviews and rumor sites, or would I rather spend that 1 hour of my life going out and actually taking photos— or perhaps inviting a photography friend for a coffee at a local cafe and critique one another’s images?

Would I rather spend $5000 on a new camera, or would I rather use that money to buy 100 nice dinners for me and Cindy?

Would I rather buy a $1000 espresso machine, or have 333 espressos (assuming an espresso is $3 at a local hipster cafe) and enjoy my cafe experience, chat with a barista, and get out of my apartment?

Life is short; don’t waste it

Friend, don’t waste trying to find things to add to your life— because adding more stuff to your life will lead to adding complications and stress to your life.

Remove stuff, or better yet— give it away.

Remove clothes that you haven’t worn for 6 months and donate it to the Red Cross or Goodwill (or give it to a younger cousin).

Give away cameras that you haven’t touched for 6 months to a local photography program (high-school, middle-school), to a cousin, to a sibling, to your mom or dad, or to a friend who is starting to get interested in photography.

Give away resentment, anger, and beef you might have with old family members and friends (forgive and forget).

If your car causes you more stress and anxiety, sell it and realize how fun it can be to walk more, ride your bike more, take the subway and bus (which allows you to nap on long commutes), and to ride around with Uber (like a king). And realize by not owning a car, you will be less envious of others cars out there, and less stressed about insurance, someone denting your car, getting a speeding or parking ticket, the stress of being stuck in traffic, or the stress of trying to find a parking spot.

I am not perfect by any means— I am just trying to be happy in my life (whatever that means). Insofar much as I know as of typing this now, I think the secret is to remove irritants, stress, and things that cause me anxiety. The good things in life are quite cheap, and easy to obtain.

Joyful feelings come from spending long (3 hour dinners) with friends and family, for doing creative work (writing, photographing), for traveling (doesn’t have to be overseas, just outside of your apartment), and having loving relationships. And in order to be loved, you need to first love others.

Happiness for me is a nice espresso, the peace and calm of reading a book at 5am in the morning (before everyone else has woken up), and even having the opportunity to write this (6am at a Starbucks, even though the espresso wasn’t very good). Happiness is being able to do my life’s passion (teach) and bringing people together and building a sense of community.

So let us cherish the small things in our life— and proclaim how much of a joy it is to be alive, to have our sight, to live in society (with other human beings, not on a desert island), to have a more than capable digital camera (a smartphone camera can even suffice), and the opportunity to share our creativity with the world for free (WordPress, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter).

We live in the best generation, the best time, the best moment right now. Let us not romanticize the past, nor let us wish for the future. Let us be satisfied with the physical things we own now, the relationships we have now, and live every moment and minute like it were our last.


Sunday, 6:01am, at Starbucks on 9th street in Downtown LA. Not sure whether I should have another coffee or not (probably will, but not the espresso, it tastes so burnt it is almost undrinkable. Now now Eric, don’t be a coffee snob, maybe you can experiment with their new high-end “Starbucks reserve” and that will tickle your hipster fancy). Nov 15, 2015.

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