Last week I completed my 100 Happy Words challenge – writing 100 words a day for 100 days. It was my second 100 Day Challenge for the year. Earlier in the year I’d completed the 100 Happy Days challenge – where I took a photo every day that captured a ‘happy moment’ – and I used the photos from that challenge as my source material / inspiration for the writing challenge.
So it’s been a year with a lot of 100s, a lot of happy and a lot of challenge. Besides the obvious outcomes – 100 happy-inducing photos and a writer’s-block-busting 10,000 words – what really made these experiences was the unexpected stuff I learned along the way.
1. Great photos are about practice
Probably the most tangible change for me over the 100 days of the original 100 Happy Days challenge was the improvement in my photos. I would generously classify my pre-challenge photos as “mediocre snaps”. Post-challenge I would call some of them “okay photos”. Huge improvement. A lot of it was practice plus finally learning how to use the camera on my phone – and trying a number of apps to see what else I could do to make pretty pictures. (All the photos were taken with my phone.) I also gave more thought to how to capture a ‘moment’. It’s something I’m still working on.
2. Accountability can work – in the short-term
As part of my 100 Happy Days challenge, I shared the photos on social media. This wasn’t essential for the challenge but I knew that if I made it public then I would be less likely to give up after a couple of days. I find accountability can be a tricky thing. As an external motivator it’s not ideal for ongoing change. But I was having trouble finding any intrinsic motivation so I was willing to take what was available. And it worked. I’m still using the public accountability for other projects but I’ve now developed a spontaneous approach to photos and writing that was absent before.
3. Sharing had unexpected benefits
While sharing on social media was great for accountability, I quickly became aware of some unexpected benefits. Firstly, I was getting positive feedback from people who really loved the photos – which made me want to take even better photos. The photos became discussion starters on anything from genus of flora to lamb roast. The comments section of my facebook page quickly filled with friends sharing their knowledge of plants and birdlife. When I saw friends in real life, they would often mention the happy photos and talk about the ones they really liked. It created another conversation point and I often discovered new things I had in common with people.
4. Private happy
While I’m glad that sharing the photos publicly was great for accountability and connecting with others, I’m quite aware that my final 100 photos would have looked very different if I’d been taking them just for myself. There were many photos that I didn’t publicly share. For example, there is a photo of my parents when my mum was in hospital. It’s an incredibly moving image for me, capturing the love and care they’ve shared for almost 70 years. It’s an image I will have for life and I’m not sure I would have been aware of the moment had I not been doing the project.
5. Huh? Some people don’t like happy
As with everything in life, there was the flipside of the social love. While most friends were incredibly supportive of me sharing my “happy moments” there were a few who were critical of the project. I tried to keep the cynicism at bay but at the time, it did make the process less enjoyable. I eventually became Teflon-coated to criticism (upon finally realising this was my project and it really didn’t matter what they thought) but it made me aware of what kind of people I wanted in my life.
6. Walking back to life
My 100 Happy Days coincided with the worst anxiety I have experienced in my life. Chest tightness, nausea, panic and confused thoughts were the daily norm. I was trying a lot of stuff to address it but the one thing I found that would shift all of these was physical activity. Early in the 100 days I was swimming most afternoons but as it became colder I switched my activity to walking at sunset. The light at this time of day is magical and, over time, I not only moved through my anxiety, but also got fitter – and took some awesome photos.
7. Distraction is mighty useful in difficult times
The project provided much-needed distraction in difficult times. As the sun went down I had to ask myself whether I had the day’s photo and if I didn’t then I had to get it. This involved asking myself “What am I happy about right now?” and capturing it in a photo or going for a walk to see what took my attention or filled me with awe. I was required to act and for me, action seems to be the enemy of ennui.
8. Happiness Plus
So my mood shifted dramatically over the 100 days of the first challenge. I certainly became happier. But not only that, I became more confident, clearer about what was important to me, more open to new experiences, optimistic about the future, I laughed more and took life less seriously. I became happier within myself. I don’t know how much of this is attributable to taking a photo a day but it certainly played a major role in how I felt and how I viewed the world. And from that point I was able to make better decisions in my life.
9. Happiness is …
Nature – birds, flowers and plants were just wonder fests, sunlight, the sky, clouds, sunsets and rises, water, rain. The little rituals that nurture. Feeling competent. The kindness of others. Music, music, music. Friends, conversation, laughter. Physical movement – dancing, walking, swimming, being in my body. Family. The kitsch, the quirky, the unexpected. Food, food and food. My cat. Storytelling and exploration of big issues through film, tv or books. Design – where form and function meet. Beauty. Places with meaning or beauty. Ideas and expansive thinking.
10. The happy is already there
The biggest thing I learned from both the 100 day challenges is probably the most obvious: I didn’t need to search for or create happiness. Happy was already there in my life. I just needed to open my eyes – and often, my heart – to see it, and acknowledge it. I became more aware of shifts in my mood and the things that would precede the shift. I also did a lot of walking where I was alert to what made me smile or gasp or curious – the things that catapulted me directly into the moment. And yes, there was always something that made me happy.
Now I just have to remember that bit …