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Not just beautiful moments

‘Doesn’t it take away from the power of a beautiful moment?’ Steven asks interested. Steven watched me collecting beautiful moments from a respectful distance. He saw me talking for a long time and in depth to a man on the streets of Austin.  The man spoke about his moment extensively and then the conversation shifted to other things which occupied his mind. Ranging from fears to hopes. In Steven’s words: ‘The man was unburdening himself.’
If you are sharing a beautiful moment, you’re reliving that moment again, which makes you happier. This is what happened in the first part of the conversation. In the second part the man spoke about his worries, which gives a different mood.
Wouldn’t it be more powerful if I just had stick to the beautiful moment and ended the conversation after that? I don’t think so. What I’m doing isn’t just beautiful moments. It’s listening, it’s being there for somebody. And that means being open. For what arises in the conversation. Because in the end everybody wants to feel heard.
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Because I’m White, Female and don’t look like a Super Model

 

I often say everybody can do what I do. What I’m doing is not rocket science. Everybody can walk up to a stranger and ask them to draw. However not everybody will get the same reactions as I do. No matter how open and willing to listen they are.

On the street first impressions are the difference between whether someone wants to listen to you or whether they immediately say ‘no’. Even before you started speaking. Those impressions are based upon the way you look: your physique, your clothes, the size of your backpack, your gender, your posture, mood and energy. A lot of it comes down to stereotypes.

Luckily, I have the perfect body for my work: It’s white, female and I don’t look like a supermodel.  The stereotypes which are attached to a non thin white woman are friendly, kind, accessible.  The color of my skin is an advantage. The advantage might not that big in every city or country, but it’s definitely here in the US. The stereotypes for black people aren’t as positive as they are for white people.  A friend of mine in Texas is a pediatrician with amazing people skills. Open, kind and a good listener. Everything you want from a person approaching you. But when people see him for the first time. They see a muscled black man, not someone they immediately trust.. The thought that my friend won’t have the same reactions on the street is infuriating.

Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York said once his first priority when approaching people is to make sure he doesn’t come across as a treat. For him this is an issue because he’s male. Until I heard him talking about being a treat it never crossed my mind I could be seen as one. But I’m female and don’t look trained, so people regard me as harmless. Nevertheless we both use the same techniques to make sure someone trusts us. For example, we both make sure we’re on eye level or lower when we talk to someone. Only I phrase it as ‘being open’.

Also in my clothing style I’m open. I don’t wear make-up or dress up. Because of that I come across as genuine and it makes it easier for people to trust me. It’s a big plus I don’t look like a super model.

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Differences between countries

Countries don’t differ a lot in beautiful moments. The central themes (Nature, Love, Friendship, Leisure) play an important role in almost country. Friendship and love are in every country’s top five, and nature and leisure feature frequently in most countries.
But there are differences. In Turkey, friendship is mentioned twice as often as it is in Australia. Leisure has the highest percentage in Vietnam. I find it remarkable that achievements and sports are in the top five in Nepal. Australia and Nepal both have a high percentage of nature-related moments. This also could explain why these countries have relatively many beautiful moments about animals (six percent).

Cultural differences are mostly visible in the details. For example family is firmly in the top ten most important subjects and cultural differences are abundantly visible in the beautiful moments that come under this theme. In Singapore there are lots of family dinners drawn, because family is important and eating together doesn’t happen often. In Vietnam many students’ moments are about calling or visiting their parents. A re-conciliatory hug with a three-year-old in Norway demonstrates something about parenting style. The cultural importance of family is also apparent in the moment of Raoul, from the Philippines. He says: ‘I’m swimming to improve my health. I was always afraid to do a turn over under water, but last week I finally dared and managed.’ He pauses. ‘I’m sorry, it’s such a selfish moment. Happy moments are supposed to be with family.’ A westerner would never have apologized for a moment in which he is alone, especially when it’s a moments which indicates a personal victory.  In this sense, beautiful moments give an insight into different cultures. And they show that people, wherever they are in the world, find each other important.

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The common themes in beautiful moments

In total I’ve collected more than 8000 beautiful moments in 29 countries. What do people draw most often? And does this differ by country? To figure this out I asked people to help me categorize drawings into themes. Together we’ve categorized almost 4000 moments.* Since the Dutch collection contains 4000 moments I took a random sample of 600 of them. A drawing can have multiple themes.

Nature

Nature is the biggest theme. The sun is visible in many of the drawings. In Asia the moon also features frequently. Nature has a beneficial impact on people.

Leisure

The second biggest theme is leisure. That isn’t remarkable, since people are relaxed and do things they enjoy in their leisure time; it’s the time that produces the most beautiful moments. Still, I find it curious that only few beautiful moments happen at work or school, since we devote much more time to work than leisure…

Together

Many moments are experienced with other people, together. Friendship, love and family are important categories. Other people matter – not only to experience beautiful moments with, but also to share the moments with them afterwards.

Highlights

Travel, celebrating birthdays and holidays are often mentioned in people’s beautiful moments. These themes rank highly because they include ‘big’ moments. People think it’s important to mention highlights; that’s why the request to draw a beautiful moment from the last week is often interpreted as a request to draw the most beautiful moment. I wonder what will happen if people just mention any beautiful moments and not necessarily the most beautiful. This will probably result in more diverse and ordinary moments, and might help people look back on their week as more positive, since they would be more conscious of the beautiful moments.

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* The countries which are included in the analysis are:

The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

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The US has changed me

The last couple of days my attitude towards collecting beautiful moments has changed dramatically. In the plane towards the US I was looking forward to collect beautiful moments. To ask people to draw a beautiful moment from their last week. to cheer people up, to connect.  I love to give people a great experience and make them happier. Especially the ones who think they have a lousy week. It would be nice and fun.
And collecting here is nice and fun. But it’s also much much more.
Everywhere I go I meet great people. From taxi drivers giving me a free ride to families opening there homes with all the love they have. From the frail old lady in the train inviting me for lunch to the little boy high fiving me.
The bigger picture however isn’t so bright. The country is on edge. It has lot of inequality, violence and tension amongst groups. The elections don’t help either. You’re always against. Never I have been warned more on how to be safe than on the streets in Dallas. To be careful, to watch out, to be aware. And while I meet incredible open and kind people, in general people don’t trust others. They trust the people they know, but not the strangers. Not the guy sitting next to you in the metro. For me that’s painful to see and say.
I think the solution is to get back to the smaller picture. To see humans as humans. Just like you do with your friends. In this hostile dynamic it’s important to tell stories about what drives us as humans. What makes us happy. How good people are. That people differ, but everybody matters. To tell the positive stories.  So we can learn to trust each other.
I walk around with open arms and a bunch of text markers. Just to connect with strangers on the streets. And I see the suspicious glance turn into a smile.  I see people talk to persons they never met before. I see them realizing the world isn’t that bad.
And off course I’m not THE solution. But I think that what I do helps. And I’m the lucky one that I’m able to do this. I can contribute to a positive change. And that’s all because of you. You who read about the beautiful moments, you who shares these stories, you who supports me. Thank you so much. You let me walk into the world with open arms. Because of you I have my hands to reach out towards others.

I no longer think it’s just nice and fun to be collecting beautiful moments here. It’s bloody necessary.

Drawing in the metro of Los Angeles.

Drawing in the metro of Los Angeles.

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Why drawing beautiful moments makes you happier

Experiencing many beautiful moments is good for your level of happiness. The more beautiful moments you experience the happier you are. These moments don’t all have to be new. Reliving moments, like you do when you draw a beautiful moment, also works. Reliving the experience can bring joy and comfort at the times we need them most. The more vivid the memory, the bigger the impact on happiness. Reliving and savouring a positive experience repeatedly helps you retain the positive emotions associated with the memory and increases your happiness. Research shows the more time people spent remembering happy events, the more they feel equipped to enjoy their lives (1).

Drawing is one of the best ways to cherish moments, to register and relive them. You could also write about the moments, but it isn’t as beneficial. Several studies have shown good results when people write down their good experiences (2), but there’s also research suggesting that writing down good moments can have negative effects on your happiness level: writing can lead to the systematic analysis of the experience, rather than just letting you relive it.
Drawing, however, always works. Drawing engages the senses in a way that does not lead to step-by-step analysis and diagnosis (3). If you draw a moment, you remember what the moment looked like and you most likely also engage your other senses: you recall smells, sounds and feelings. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pencil artist or you just draw stick figures. Either way you relive the moment, and that makes you happier.
You’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of noticing something more often if you’re concentrating on it, like being struck by how many learner cars are on the road when you’re having driving lessons. The same thing happens if you decide to draw beautiful moments. If you come across a beautiful moment, you think ‘Hey, that’s one,’ or ‘Awesome, I’m gonna draw that later.’ In this way you teach yourself to recognize beautiful moments, so you notice and experience more of them.
But you don’t only have more beautiful moments, drawing them helps you experience them more intensely too. You can relish them more. Being able to appreciate these moments is one of the most important elements of happiness. People who are good at savouring the present moment have more self-confidence, are more extravert, more satisfied and less desperate and neurotic.6 People who are good at enjoying the present are less prone to depression, stress and feelings of guilt and shame.5

How can drawing help you enjoy the now more? Firstly, you notice the beautiful moments more, so you can realise what you’re experiencing at that moment. Secondly, the drawing helps you do this. During the drawing you recollect how the moment looked, smelled and felt – you need these details to recreate the moment in a drawing. When you notice a beautiful moment and know you want to draw it later, you pay better attention to soak up the details of that moment; this helps you can savour your experience more.

Sources:
1) Bryant, F.B., Smart, C.M., & King, S.P. (2005). Using the past to enhance the present: Boosting happiness through positive reminiscence. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 227-260.
2) For example. Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T.a., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60 410-421.
3) Personal commuication with Sonja Lyobomirsky.

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The succes of the third continent: not reaching 1000

966. That’s the final number of beautiful moments collected in Australia and New Zealand. To me this feels bigger than when I would have hit the 1000 mark, the original goal of 1000 beautiful moments for Australia & New Zealand. Because it took me more courage to leave it at 966. A couple more hours of collecting moments have made sure more than 1000 moments had been collected and I had the time to do that. Then why didn’t I?
A couple of weeks ago I was stressed and worried whether I would get to the 1000. I felt the pressure of the target. This affected me in the collecting, as I subconsciously went out to get a specific number. But that was collecting with the wrong intention. It was about getting instead of giving. And people can feel that. Seize Your Moments isn’t about reaching a specific number. It’s about connecting with people and giving them the opportunity to relive their moments. So I decided to only go collecting when I really wanted it. When I was really curious about their moments. When I would wanted to give them the opportunity for remembering their moments, reliving their joy.

This decision meant embracing the possibility of not reaching to the 1000. This was tricky, since I’m a perfectionist. And I learned as a kid to work hard and reach my goals. I always want to prove to myself the goals I set are things I’m capable of. Especially if it seems impossible at first. That’s what I do. Deciding that I could not reach the initial target felt as making failure the real option. We have learned to live up to expectations, especially the ones we put ourselves up to. And when you don’t live up to expectations, you need a reason why. Otherwise it’s called failing. I convinced myself it wasn’t failing. Because it was a decision about which was best for the project. A decision which was closest to the spirit of seize your moments.

But even if I didn’t have a good reason to not get to 1000 beautiful moments, I haven’t failed. It are 966 beautiful moments. It’s the woman on federation square Melbourne who cried and smiled. Carlos who said he had a lousy week until he remembered he got Australian citizenship. It’s Collin who thanked me for helping him remember he got his first fathers day card from his daughter he hadn’t seen in 28 years. It’s Kate who drew the bush tomatoes in birds eye perspective, because they tasted so sweet. It’s the look on Angus face when he saw what I was doing in the train. It’s this and many more.
The journey in Australia and New Zealand was great and I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to done this. As Aaron in Sydney said: “Janne, you rely on the kindness of strangers to give strangers kindness”. What have you all been kind to me. And although I trust in it and know the world works like this. It still feels incredible. Thanks to you I could celebrated today. And I celebrated 996 beautiful moment. Thank you!

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How seeing 2500 beautiful moments in 24 countries changed me

The last rays of sunshine flick on my face and I’m laughing. Because I’m writing this blog. A year after I left my home town I’m in Sydney Australia, a destination which seems nearly impossible a year ago, just as being on the road for a year. In this year more than 2500 people in 24 countries drew a beautiful moment. How did it affect me that I saw so much happiness of people?

First off, seeing so many people smiling everyday certainly affects my mood. It’s contagious. It’s not that I start off collecting while being grumpy, that doesn’t work, but it definitely keeps me smiling.
Especially because quite a lot of persons show a change in their mood while approaching them. A Serbian woman didn’t want to join because she didn’t have any moments and then remembers her son playing football. A shy girl in Vietnam thought she was too shy to approach strangers but helped me with translating. A suicidal man in Copenhagen smiled while singing a song from his childhood. A young man in Sydney thought he had a miserable week until he remembered he got his Australian citizenship. It’s quite fulfilling to see these kind of changes in people and it’s the reason why I do this. Remembering beautiful moments can make you happier.

The moments itself show a lot of diversity and unity. Drawing that you’ve got a compliment is something which is only drawn in the Netherlands while family dinners are most drawn in Singapore. A lot of the beautiful moments reflect relationships with other persons, whether it’s your boyfriend/girlfriend, family or friends. Another big part is being in nature and doing things you like. How exactly the moments look like differs from place to place. It showed me how happiness can be found everywhere. In each country and almost every situation people could come up with beautiful moments. It struck me that in Nepal alphabetics still went drawing, although they seldom hold a pen. The significance of the project differs also per country and it’s not only limited to happiness. In Nepal it was an important part of the story I was doing it as a woman. In Serbia people were amazed by the fact it was possible not to have a nine to five job. In Slovenia where the economical crisis has hit hard the project gained more importance, since people there where more reflecting on what the important things in live are.
I learned that this project has something to offer in each place.

Getting so many people to draw requires some endurance. And this year I’ve learned how to boost my perseverance.
One of the tricks is to go back to my values. Why I do this. Which values are important to me. If for instance I don’t feel like collecting on a certain day I repeat in my head the following sentences: “I want to know what happens and whatever happens is okay.” These phrases spark my curiosity and give me the right attitude and enthusiasm to go and ask strangers.
Another way is to is to stop for a little while and do something else. Sometimes an afternoon is enough, in Vietnam I had to take a month. In Saigon my motivation for the project had become very low. Mainly because I was tired, I missed having friends around me and I wasn’t using my analytic mind enough, so I didn’t feel challenged in an intellectual sense. The decision to take a break from collecting and focus on making friends and other parts of the projects like giving lectures was an easy one. And the first days it really seemed to work. My motivation went up, but in general it stayed on a lower level for a couple of weeks. The difficult part was keeping faith my motivation would go up again. When I left Saigon I wasn’t really enthusiastic about continuing but I thought we’ll see what happens. And that openess saved me. In Cambodia my curiosity was sparked again and in Malaysia my motivation was sky high just by approaching people on the street.
This open “we’ll see what what happens” approach helps me to deal with insecurities. If things go wrong often good things happen, if I can switch my perspective on the matter. This is something became even more skilled at. When I forgot my key and had to go to a hostel to spend the night I was a bit down. But I started laughing after the hostel owner told me I had to spend the night on the street. The story had become too weird and turned into a real adventure. A missed airplane turned out to be the best thing I did that week when somebody read I was still in Singapore and wanted to meet up. With the words “every year I support a dreamer” she gave me an envelope with quite some cash.
I don’t think I’m overly optimistic. Let’s face it. I’m on the road for 12 months while when I left I had a budget for 3 months. With my current budget I can last 1-2 months. My insecurities haven’t risen though. I’m more confident in my own capabilities and the opportunities which will arise.

The thing which overwhelmed me this year was how many people helped me, the number is around 500. From offering a place to sleep or a meal to building a website. And from supporting me in the crowd funding or giving me an unused laptop to translating or making a video. It makes me humble and sometimes feeling small. The only reason I can do the world tour. The further this project progresses the more I’m relying on the kindness of strangers to make this project happen and it works. It’s an awesome feeling to know how great people are.
Thank you all.

Collecting in Hyde Park Sydney, Australia. Photo taken by Katrina James

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