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.
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.
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 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.
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…
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.
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.
* 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.
I no longer think it’s just nice and fun to be collecting beautiful moments here. It’s bloody necessary.
Remember the TEDx talk I did in Groningen a while ago? TEDx Innovations wrote a great blog about it. They featured it together with the a cool talk of Andri Søren. Andri takes everyday sounds and transforms them into music. The music from a specific place does he put on a postcard. I love how both our talks emphasize the beauty of the ordinary. And use postcards to reshape perspectives.
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.
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.
“Just come over. I’ll leave the door of my hotel room open.” My oldest brother just called he arrived in Groningen. Today I’ll give a TEDx talk. When I walk out of the shower -my hair still wet- he’s already there. “I have to leave for the Stadsschouwburg in 10 minutes. Shall I do a practice run?” He puts a timer on and sets himself down on the bed. Me standing and just doing the talk for him. Just him. “This is it.” I say and look him in the eye. It’s watery. He doesn’t have to say a thing.
This is the TEDx talk I delivered in Groningen, The Netherlands on November 20th. For more information and the beautiful blog of Marit Coehoorn, take a look http://tedxgroningen.com/talks/janne-willems/