How to Use Your Camera to Refocus Yourself Toward HappinessNone By David Boudreau
We’ve all been there. That midafternoon energy slump or that low-mood day. Maybe we’re not getting anywhere with a work project, or maybe we find ourselves worrying or ruminating about something and can’t seem to let it go.
I’m certainly no stranger to that feeling.
I’m not exactly sure how or why this happened on one particular sunny autumn day, but I managed to change my usual do-the-same-thing-and-expect-something-different pattern and actually stumbled on happiness by doing something different. It was a watershed moment, but I really wouldn’t recognize the full impact until months later.
Here’s what happened.
I was at the desk of my home office, struggling to stay focused on a project with a deadline while the clock was ticking away, reminding me of other time-sensitive priorities. I was quickly getting more stressed, aware that as my stress levels were increasing, my brain power resources were heading in the other direction. Even though it was still early in the day, I felt brain-weary.
However, rather than my usual response of noncompassionately forcing myself to buckle down and plough through my low mood and low energy, I pushed myself away from the desk, grabbed my phone and jacket, and headed out the door.
I had no idea what I was going to do. My brain was simply barking out to me, “Get out of the house and get out of your head,” while another voice was protesting, “You don’t have time for this.” As my feet touched down on the sidewalk on my street, I compromised and decided that I’d get out of the house, and hopefully out of my head, for ten to fifteen minutes with a walk around the block. Surely that would appease both of my needs.
I had the sense that this was an experiment. That was what I was telling myself. If getting out of the house and walking for ten to fifteen minutes did nothing for me, I would cross that off my imagined list of stress busters.
I had learned, but hadn’t really successfully practiced, the idea of taking a break from brain-draining activities and interrupting self-talk by doing something different. Also, I expected the physical activity of going for a walk to give me a mood lift and maybe even relieve some of the anxiety and stress.
I didn’t want to walk around the block and continue to ruminate about my project and my other unmet priorities on the horizon. Instead, I took out my mobile phone and turned on the camera. I must have been channeling my inner therapist because I gave myself another directive: “On this walk, find three things of beauty or three things that give you a sense of joy, and take photos of them.”
Suddenly, I found myself snapping photos of the wonderful mature trees in the neighborhood, flowers, even interesting garbage that people had left curbside. I was also zooming in and out, taking photos of interesting colors, patterns, and textures all around me. I certainly wasn’t an artist or a photographer, but once I got behind the camera, I felt like I was. Plus, I saw my neighborhood in a brand-new way despite having lived there for twenty years!
I was rediscovering my world with what the Zen practitioners might call “beginner’s mind,” and it was exhilarating! Using the camera to focus my awareness was like a guided mindfulness activity. Instead of focusing on my breath or sounds or sensations, I was focusing on the sights around me. And specifically, I was focusing on the sights around me that would normally go unseen during my usual short, purposeful walks to the car or mailbox.
And of course, the physical exercise and fresh air from my walk made me even happier.
In the coming weeks and months, I persisted with my happiness walks and experimented further. I explored other streets, went on hiking trails, took more time when I could, and tried to balance simply being present during these walks with my other directive of refocusing my mind on the beauty around me.
And the good feelings didn’t stop there.
I re-experienced the positive feelings from my photo walks later as I scrolled through the photo gallery on my phone. Looking at the photo captures, or “catch of the day” photos, as I came to refer to them, I felt a sense of joy, wonder, and positive energy all over again. I was savoring these unexpected images of my neighborhood and the world around me while also delighting in my newfound creativity.
And there was more to come.
By coincidence, my sister introduced me to some fairly simple and relatively straightforward photo-editing apps available on my mobile phone. I was instantly hooked!
Immediately, I could see the kaleidoscopic possibilities of further enjoying my photos by changing the colors, reshaping the images, and adding painterly effects.
Again, in the spirit of play, I began to experiment with making pleasing alternate versions of my original photos. I often found many different ways to see my original image. I was amazed to discover that some of the transformed images were quite abstract from the original photos that I started with. This was fun!
The photo editing and the resulting feelings of creativity, joy, and accomplishment brought me to a level of happiness that I couldn’t have imagined that first day when I hit the sidewalk, looking for beauty in a ten-to-fifteen-minute walk around the block with my camera phone.
When I started to share some of these images with family, friends, and colleagues and to eventually post some of them to social media sites, I further enjoyed the feelings that emanated from the process of taking and transforming the photos. Sometimes other people were liking them as well, and I hoped in some small way that I was sparking a little joy and beauty in their days.
So, this is what I learned that might be helpful to others.
Since a majority of us have a mobile phone within reach, re-creating my happiness walks and/or transforming the resulting photos might prove to be at least an interesting experiment. I’ve learned that beauty and joy are really all around us, but usually in those small, unnoticed, or seemingly unremarkable aspects of our everyday lives. Given the brain’s wired-in insistence on focusing on the negative, happiness walks with the use of cameras can be a powerful way of refocusing your mind, transforming your experience, and reorienting you toward happiness.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Get outside, although you can do this indoors if circumstances like extreme weather make a walk impossible.
2. Grab your camera or camera phone. Focus your mind on looking for beauty, color, patterns. Imagine that you’re an artist or photographer. Notice what you wouldn’t usually notice.
3. Strive to be as physically present during your mindful walk as possible. In addition to the scenery, notice your breathing, the sounds around you, and the sensations and physical benefits of the movement and exercise during your walk.
4. Decide whether you want a time limit on your walk or whether you have the luxury of taking more time for yourself. Give yourself a direction or focus to these walks, such as finding three beautiful or interesting things, three red objects, etc. You can experiment with the numbers or the directive. Too few things to capture may end up in more mind wandering, but too many things may create stress.
5. Remember to enjoy your photos in your photo gallery when you’re done. Be mindful of your inner critic trying to evaluate or judge the artistic merit of the photos. Instead, connect with your experience of discovering the subject of that photo and the beauty or joy that it evokes for you.
6. If you’re so inclined and have time later, you may want to download some photo-editing apps and experiment with cropping or adjusting the photos with colors or special effects. Remember that you are not trying to create the perfect photo or work of art; you are experimenting, playing, and being creative with that photo.
7. Your photo gallery is a living and portable happiness booster for you. Check it often to savor those happiness walks and enjoy the artistic transformations of those images that you’ve created.
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