Happy Strangers – Hannah Williams

March 4, 2017

Kindness. Humility. Humour… Forget about the old adage of not speaking to strangers, the truth is we stand to gain a lot more from them than we think. Happy Strangers, the Instagram account turned movement, is proof that we all need a little human connection. Founder Hannah Williams enlightens us about what drove her to reach out, and why we all need a little happy. MC, editor

For people who don’t know Happy Strangers, how would you describe what it is, what it stands for? 

Happy Strangers is both the idea and the practice of finding happiness through other people. The idea happened about two and a half years ago, when I started photographing strangers, and asking them what it was that made them happy. I really had no idea what to expect, but I found myself connecting with people from all walks of life — even people who seemed very different than me. I realized that if you look past people’s backgrounds, religion, political views, race, gender, sexual orientation, past decisions and so on, you will find another human being who ultimately just wants to be happy.  

We all want to be happy, and the idea through this project is for me to showcase that. I want to break down stereotypes and have people connect on a level that is just human-to-human, and recognize that all of us are just trying to figure this “life” thing out.  

The “practice” side of Happy Strangers really started to take form after I’d asked hundreds of people about what it was that made them happy, and I realized that a lot of people weren’t sure how to answer me. I began to look at other people’s research on happiness, and the word that I kept coming across was “gratitude.”  

I felt the call to take action. I decided that, instead of just asking strangers what made them happy, maybe I could help show them. My friend Elizabeth and I started what we call “Thank You Thursday”, which we still do now, where set up gratitude stations in different locations every week. Sometimes we have strangers write Thank You cards to anyone they feel grateful for, and sometimes we set up a wall with notecards that read “Today, I am thankful for…” and allow people to list the different reasons they are grateful. Even if people don’t participate, they still can stop and read what others have written – all of which is practice for “finding happiness through others.”  

We have passed out roses, or left them in people’s car doors. There are so many ways to practice finding happiness through other people, but these are just a few we’ve found effective so far.  

At what point did you decide to venture into this branch of storytelling? 

It took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to share these stories. At first, I simply shared quotes from the strangers I’d spoken to, but I found myself wanting to edit their quotes and it didn’t feel genuine to put quotation marks around something that I’d edited. So I decided to share the stories from my perspective, which felt a lot more natural. I eventually shared a photo of myself, and asked my followers what they wanted to read, and got a lot of positive feedback about the way I was doing things. So I stuck with it. I’d say it took about a year to find my voice, though.  

And what do you think is the biggest impact you’ve made through the project? 

It’s about a lot of small impacts, rather than any big one. I’ve talked with strangers who’ve literally cried on my shoulder, and it’s opened the door to some beautiful conversations, but a lot of the beauty behind the project, is that I don’t really know what it means to anyone else. I do know that starting this project has impacted my life more than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve discovered a way of thinking that’s changed me. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I do hope that this idea spreads and that it impacts other people the way it’s impacted me.  

After the US election, I was overwhelmed by how divided my country was starting to feel. Despite feeling majorly discouraged, I decided to hold a “Thank You Thursday” the following day, anyway. I set up in Atlanta’s biggest park (Piedmont Park) and had the gratitude wall set up. It was by far the best turnout I’ve ever had. All kinds of people showed up, brought speakers to play music, ordered pizza, and were dancing together in the middle of the park. I stayed there all day, watching my community come together. It was wonderful.  

Just how do you get people to open up? 

That took a while to figure out. At first, I would walk up to random people and awkwardly say “Hey, my name is Hannah and I am working on this project… Can you tell me what makes you happy?”… People would freeze up. After a while, I started just going to public places by myself, bringing my camera, and instead of approaching other people – I let it happen organically. Most of the time, people approach me. I’ll just kind of sit somewhere until someone asks what I’m doing. I never want to make anyone uncomfortable, so I try not to be invasive. If someone tells me they don’t want their picture taken, I don’t ask twice. I let it go, and I wait until someone seems to feel good about the idea.  

You’ve featured huge variety of people with different viewpoints on being happy. Tell us, what is your personal definition of happiness? 

There are a lot of factors that go into being happy. Personally, I think happiness is just feeling alive. I don’t know if it was a book, a podcast, a friend, or a stranger — but someone once said that the opposite of depression is vitality. I think it all goes hand in hand.  

You recently wrote an honest Instagram post about taking a break to recharge and wanting to set goals for the project to ensure its longevity. Who or what did you turn to, to find that inspiration that you needed?

I went through a lot of changes at the end of last year and the start of this one. I went through a break up, I got a new job, and my roommate moved out all at the same time. I was working on getting registered as a nonprofit and just got overwhelmed with how much was going on. During that time, I found myself praying a lot. I knew I needed to work on loving myself, and when I think about the word “love”, I think about it meaning both patience and kindness. I tried to imagine someone else going through the same things I was going through, and what advice I would give that person.  

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this project wasn’t something I was trying to rush to finish, and I allowed myself to rest. I decided that I wouldn’t allow this project to bring me stress, because the whole idea is meant to bring happiness. I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic” which was inspirational, and helped me learn to separate myself from my creative work. I also read Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking”. Both helped me take some pressure off myself.

How do you challenge yourself? 

I’m naturally extroverted. It’s natural for me to run around and talk to people, but I know that spending time alone, reading/reflecting/meditating, helps me to grow. I’ve challenged myself this year to also leave my electronics out of the bed, which has been great for my sleeping habits.  

Sometimes I challenge myself by approaching the least-approachable person in a room, to see if I can get their story and find out what makes them happy. I mentioned before that if someone doesn’t want to talk to me, I let it go… but I also see it as my job to at least try. I’d say I’m successful most of the time. I could count on my fingers how many times I’ve been rejected.  

Do you see the platform taking on another form in a few months, or years even? 

Yes! I’m really excited about what’s next. I’m working on branding Happy Strangers right now, and I’ve had a few people from other parts of the country reach out to me and ask how they can be involved. My hope for this year is to work with some brand ambassadors, who can then set up Thank You Thursdays on their own. I do have a few other ideas, but I’m still trying to sort it all out (while remaining patient with myself, of course).

Brandon Stanton said “Talking to people or approaching anyone is something I don’t even think about — it’s not something that I have to build up the courage to do. It was an earned skill.” How much do you agree with this idea and has this been your experience with Happy Strangers?  

I agree with that idea a lot. There have been times, as I mentioned before, where I’ll reach out of my comfort zone, but I would’ve never started this project if it wasn’t very natural for me to talk to people.  

Don’t wait for anyone to tell you that your vision is good enough. Stop waiting for permission.”- Aisha Tyler. Any wisdom you could impart on getting clear on goals and being confident in your ideas? 

I love that quote. My cousin, Chris Barnes, said to me once, “Look… the difference in the people who make it and the people who don’t make it normally falls down to the people who do it, and the people who don’t do it.” That really stuck with me. I think creative people sometimes get scared of putting their work out into the world, because it will never be “perfect.”  

In my opinion, the sooner anyone can get over the idea of being perfect, the better. We forget sometimes that our passions are unique to who we are. The things that make us come alive are all very different, so my suggestion to anyone who isn’t feeling confident in their ideas would be — “If you have found something that makes you feel alive, then you need to chase it. It isn’t about succeeding or failing, but about staying curious and open to what the world has to teach you.”  

I don’t know if it’s normal to quote yourself, but… that’s what I would say!

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