I have a lot of friends and clients who ask me (seriously) why I always have a smile on my face and always seem......pretty happy. Well, at this point in my life I think I have a few things figured out and I thought I'd share my perspective.
The first thing I thought of beyond the personal stuff (like falling in love with the right future spouse or living in a city that makes it hard to fail) is loving what you do. I know, I know, we all love photography but if you are making a living at it do you love the stuff that surrounds taking the photos? Do you like meeting with clients? Do you like collaborating? Do you like experimenting? Do you like telling stories? Do you like figuring out what to use to make a great shot? Do you love it when you absolutely nail a shot? I can honestly say yes to all of the above. I love having lunch with favorite clients, working as a tight team with an advertising agency counterpart, etc. I don't even mind the parts of travel that most people hate....
Loving what I do takes so much stress out of my life and the feeling of mastery I finally have gives me deep satisfaction. That I have figured out how to charge people for it isn't just the "icing on the cake" it's an integral part of the process. So, to be happy you have to love your day to day work. In addition to that I would say that there is much inherent happiness in charting and following your own course. Working for anybody else comes with restrictions, different expectations and compromise. All of which I encounter with clients but I always have the ability to walk away from toxic clients and still pay the bills at the end of the month...Happiness, to a certain extent, is based on being existentially unencumbered. But socially well attached.
To love an ever changing visual profession I think you need to be ever curious. Being curious leads you to question conventional wisdom and to experiment for yourself. While changing cameras all the time drives linear thinkers on web forums batty I think continually seeing how diverse tools influence your thinking, your approach to making photographs and your approach to the job of making photographs is amply rewarded by understanding how to do the craft you love in a zillion different ways rather than being like an ox in a yoke, traveling around in a circle. How do you really know which camera will make you happiest (remembering that this is our goal) if you don't give some of them a try. Happiness is finally coming to the realization that you could do good work with any camera you put in your hands so you get to play with as many as you'd like. But it's the mastery over the equipment (and rejecting the presumed need to follow the herd) that creates more happiness. Grab cameras and use them until you know what you like and then get that and use it. Not happy with the camera? Try another one. They are relatively cheap for most people.
finding your own idea of beauty wherever you look.
Happy photographers are not the photographers who only pick up the camera if there is a purchase order or job involved. Since the very act of creating is fulfilling and positive it stands to reason that doing it more and more often will lead to more happiness. I combine my love of people with my love of photographing people, and when I connect person-to-person as well as photographer-to-subject it makes my work better and gives me another profoundly nice layer of happiness. In many ways the act of making portraits is really the act of making friends. The more friends one has the happier most people are. A subset of benefits to making portraits all the time is that you develop a subconscious process for discovering beauty. Your completely subjective idea of beauty. I love to identify something that I think is unusual beauty instead of obvious beauty. You won't find many brash, chesty blonde hot babes in my portfolio or my personal work but you will find lots of people who have an unusual aspect of beauty or a manifestation of grace that I work hard to bring into photographs. It's often an imperfection or a variance from routine perfection that I find stunningly beautiful. Looking for, and finding beauty in the life around us is another source of.....happiness. Appreciating beauty as you have come to define it is a happy undertaking.
Drinking good coffee makes me happy but it's not all about the chemistry of the beverage. For me, drinking coffee means going someplace to find good coffee and then surrounding myself with friends and sharing, talking, and supporting each other. Life is already solitary enough. Taking a break to check in with close friends, and to meet new friends, makes one.....happy. Doing it over better coffee makes one more happy.
Simple moments of beauty make me smile and smiling makes me happier. Knowing that nature is in flux always leads me to walk and savor it; to see it change in front of me. It gives me an excuse to go outside and be part of the whole. Feeling the Seasons and making photographs that remind me of something like a cool Autumn day in the north makes me appreciate my tenure on the planet. And, generally, that makes me happy. It's bittersweet knowing that everything ends but knowing that I am in it now is wonderful and worth appreciating.
Which leads me to the idea that having a little faith (not necessarily religion) that everything is working as it should and as it will takes away stress and uncertainty and gives me the confidence to plunge into new projects. I have faith that they'll work out, faith that even if the projects fail they'll add to my store of ideas, my experience and even my character. But most stuff works out. And people who have no faith in the universe, or themselves, never start out on uncertain projects and never get to see their way to a beautiful resolution. I have faith that life will unspool in random and chaotic ways but that there will always be a pattern in the chaos. Nothing I can do will change or do much to hamper the chaos but I rely on my faith that order exists in chaos, even if I don't understand it.
If you want to be a happy photographer then learn to celebrate your victories, no matter how small they may seem. It's the small things that are seeds to bigger achievement and bigger ideas. When a meeting goes well I might celebrate with a cookie. When I win a bid I celebrate by going for a walk. When a job goes well I might take the family out for dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant. When I finally get the tax return done I might take a weekend vacation with Belinda. If, every time a shot goes well you just .... smile and feel satisfaction it reinforces and builds happiness.
I spent part of last week hiking around in the Tennessee hills and valleys. Today I was in the middle of the Everglades in Florida. By Sunday I'll be walking around looking at stuff in Reykjavik (probably in a bit of drizzle) in each case I have a camera in my hand as I watch new scenes unfold in front of me. I decide what to shoot and what to pass by. I linger on stuff that resonates with me. But I guess my point is that I've conspired to make my job a catalyst for getting off my ass, out from in front of my computer screen and moving. Always moving. Life is motion. The more you move the happier you are. Hiking, walking through long airport corridors, climbing mountains or walking through cities that are new to me --- it's all about motion and motion is happiness. That's why I walk and that's why I swim.
If you want to be happy you need to have a broad enough perspective in order to reject small minded ideas. Traveling can give you a much broader understanding for difference, diversity and the potential of people who have constructed societies that work. Happy people live longer, travel more and learn all the time; mostly through new experiences and exposure to new people. If you want to be happy then get off the office chair and come up with a good reason to travel. It doesn't have to be far. It would be a mind expanding experience for some people in tightly cosseted neighborhoods just to drive across town and sit in a coffee shop that caters to a different demographic. I lived in Turkey for two years of my younger life, have traveled to 18 other countries for work and play and am about to embark on a trip to Iceland and then, a few weeks later, over to the United Kingdom. I learn a bit more with every trip but the biggest lesson is that we need to stop making our nationalism a tool of division and to embrace the best of every culture. The world seems more homogenous because products seem more and more the same across borders and the internet keeps shrinking (or expanding?) the social communication space but it's the face to face encounters that humanize us to our neighbors and vice versa. And that's a good thing.
If you want to be really happy then go fall in love. Be careful because the idea of love can be a two edged sword; exhilarating when it's good and excruciating if it turns bad. Be as careful finding a person as you are finding a camera system....well, maybe even more so because you probably won't find as many opportunities to "trade systems" and g"upgrading" gets REALLY, REALLY expensive. As my friend, Mike, used to say: "Every time I get divorced I cut my net worth in half and my life expectancy by another two years...." Seriously though, a good partner who understands that you take photographs not because you want to but because you love to and feel like it's an important part of your life, will enhance your happiness and reduce your levels of distraction year after year. And, it's vital to have someone wonderful to share all those victories, successes and milestones with. Lonely success is no success at all...
Want to be happy with your work? Don't do anything exactly the same way twice. If you're not taking chances then you are just going through the motions and you might as well be a banker, lawyer or car mechanic (my preference would be car mechanic, but only on old cars that require....creativity). Seriously, as soon as I get a lighting design down and do it for a day I'm ready to move on a try something new; even if it's just a nuance-y sort of change. It's swimming without a life jacket on that makes the swimming fun. A relentless focus on making technique better match your vision. I'm always working on technique because I know it's always more important than the gear.
Put your stuff out there. No project ever feels completely finished. There's always one more thing you could be polishing. But at some point you just need to take a stiff drink (literally or metaphorically) and put your work out to your audience. They can love it or hate it but you've already made yourself happy by doing the process; the sharing is just a way of acknowledging that you are moving on to the next thing. The next process, the next dose of happy creativity.
Wanna be happy? Don't go so fast. Be prepared to slow down and experience stuff instead of racing to meet self-imposed obligations and deadlines. I was driving back from somewhere when I saw this field of flowers. At first I drove on by at 60 mph. About a half a mile down the road I gave myself permission to modify my schedule and to go spend an hour just savoring and experiencing field after field of beautiful flowers growing near the highway in the middle of central Texas. It was wonderful and the photo makes me smile every time I look at it. I like flowers but I like reminders of my own freedom even more. A good photograph can remind you of the time you decided to stop and savor something instead of rushing back to the office just to do more stuff. Endless stuff makes me unhappy.
If you want to be happy you need to figure out how to save money. The more money you save the more bad assignments and the more bad clients you can afford to turn down. And when you turn down bad clients you leave more space for the good ones to step in. You become accessible and you become sought after. The money helps you be a better critic of work. Yours, your potential clients and everyone else out there. Fear of running out of money ruins happiness and creativity. Security brings with it the freedom to do things your way or jot collaborate with people who respect your vision and talent. They'll see you as a creator instead of an order filler. You'll all feel better. Money in the bank means being able to do your own work or to chill out and take a break when you've done a lot of good work in a short amount of time. You do it by saving a little all the time. By not buying crazy stuff. By not living beyond your means. I don't buy stuff unless I can afford to do so without hitting my savings, my overall cash flow or making me uncomfortable and leaving me at the mercy of fear and predatory clients. Cash in the bank (metaphorically) is a win.
Love to work on your work.
Be in love for the long run.
Take care of yourself with good food and exercise and you'll be able to carry cameras further, look at more stuff and have more enjoyable experiences with the process of photography.
Save your money. Stop grabbing for the shiny stuff and live beneath your means, you might need the money more in the future than Nikon or Canon need it today. Always remember what my friend, Heidi (professor of accounting at UT) once said to me:
Compound interest can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
Make friends wherever you go. Go wherever you can make friends.
To be a happy photographer photograph the things you love. Subject is the essence of photography. Photography doesn't exist without subjects.
Travel broadens the mind (and the heart). Travel expands your portfolio.
Don't wait for some better, future self to come along and do great work. The only way to a better, future self is by settling in and doing the good work right now.
Love subjects more than cameras.
Love people more than work.
If you do this for money then work hard to find the joy and value in everything you photograph.
For the ultimate in happiness just keep reading Kirk's blog.....(okay, that was just a joke).
The only way to have more happiness is to decide to have more happiness.
It starts with a smile.
May life give you many licks on the face.
I'll gladly walk a mile in another man's shoes.....if they are size 10 Ahnus.
Live well. But a red car? Hmmm. Why not?
Love where you live, or move.
Cameras are fun. Just remember why we have them.
If you swim everyday then.....
...every once in a while it's okay to have one of these.
Few things make the process of post production happier than a good custom white balance before you snap that frame.
Learn from classical art.
Eat lots of fun food. Whole food. Happy food.
And, if you are sitting in first class, always remember when you too used to fly economy.
That's all I've got. Happiness.