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A global art project: What makes the world smile?

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.

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Draw your happiness

Can you draw what makes you happy? Starting today, we will be accepting “DrawHappy” submissions from Inquirer readers of all ages. E-mail to [email protected] with the subject line “DrawHappy PDI.”

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We will feature your happiness drawings in this section and will post them online, too, at www.DrawHappy.org.

Visit www.DrawHappy.org/submit for submission guidelines and terms. If you wish to hold a DrawHappy event in your school, company, or organization, e-mail [email protected]

Perhaps it was a nagging curiosity, perhaps it was restlessness but, for one reason or another, I found myself in the mysterious and sometimes mystical country of Iceland.

For years, I have been fascinated with happiness—its arbitrariness as well as our insistence on studying it as though it were quantifiable. Iceland happens to rank consistently as one of the happiest places in the world. And so off I went.

I wanted to ask these people what made them happy, but ah, how do I get them to show it? I realized that one of the most universal and clearest ways to record their responses was to ask them to draw their happiness.

Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures and nations. I reasoned that if people knew that they were happy, they should be able to identify the source and, moreover, visually embody this joy.

Kindness is first

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I vividly remember the first time I asked someone to draw. It was in a diner, a short pit stop on the way back to Reykjavik after spending time in the black beaches of Vik. The young man, Arnar, who worked the register and couldn’t be more than 17 years old, was such a warm and genuine character that I knew I had to ask him.

When you have a project in your head, the initial step is always one of uncertainty and awkwardness. I didn’t have a name for the project yet. I felt foolish for even asking. But I was immensely touched when he drew something that I never thought would be the first sketch.

“When I see people do an act of kindness, that makes me feel truly happy,” he said. Kindness! In a world that’s often depicted as materialistic and disconnected! Perhaps there was something to this after all.

Happiness machine

That first encounter made it easier for the succeeding ones. I became a one-woman happiness machine thereafter, asking everyone in my path. Even a particularly cold and windy day (in Iceland, “windy” means “being swept off your feet”) didn’t stop me—I went through the entire street of Laugavegur, the primary commercial street in Reykjavik, and asked every single person who would listen to me.

Some turned me away, but many took the pencil I offered and drew, which they confessed they hadn’t done in years. Some told me that no one ever asked them this question before, which made me do a double-take (Seriously?) and a cartwheel (Yes! About time!).

I set my goal for the Iceland trip at 100 drawings, a big yet manageable number since my trip lasted around two weeks, with half of the time spent chasing waterfalls, volcanoes and the Northern Lights. But I persisted, even asking people on the plane with me en route to New York. Upon returning, I reviewed the sketches I had, reflected on why I was even interested in doing this to begin with, and decided to put everything online and continue the project.

 

Drawings as data

My teachers and classmates at the interaction design program at the School of Visual Arts, where I received my MFA this May, helped me a lot in tightening up my story and clarifying my intentions with DrawHappy.

A final project for my data visualization class led to me creating an infographic about the sketches I had. I began treating the drawings as actual data, categorizing the countries where people came from and what they drew. I think doing this helped me understand why people chose to draw what they did.

To this day, I ask people to give their name, age, country of origin and profession. They don’t have to, but I encourage it because I think it’s important to own up to your happiness and it gives me a way to see how it is defined by people of their demographic.

I also ask them about what they were doing right before they made the drawing; I think our notion of happiness is contextual and affected by the things that surround us. How a person views happiness also changes through time and, occasionally, I get another submission from a previous participant, whose definition of happy has evolved.

Going global

It has been more than a year since Iceland. The project has since received submissions from 47 countries. Even now, my heart would skip a beat every time I get an e-mail from a complete stranger, wanting to participate in the project.

I have smiled, laughed, wondered and cried at the stories I have gotten from people I may never meet.

DrawHappy has been a window into our shared humanity, one that is universal and timeless. I hope to run this project forever; I think it has sustained me as well as the people who have supported it.

Lessons on happiness

DrawHappy has also made me understand happiness in a deeper way. Happiness is a paradox. To quantify it, as I have found, is less interesting to me than to qualify it by what people have chosen to draw.

Happiness is also a way of life, not an end. How we are happy, that is, whether we can see the little joys in the day, matters more than the bigger payoffs of life.

Finally, I now believe that happiness is something that can be cultivated or practiced every single day. I hope that in getting people to draw, they will be reminded of their happiness and that they take steps to pursue it.

E-mail the author at [email protected] or tweet @catherineyoung. Parts of this article have appeared in the project’s site, www.DrawHappy.org as well as my personal blog, www.ThePerceptionalist.com. Follow the project at www.DrawHappy.org or @idrawhappy.

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