We were sold on Hannah and Happy Strangers instantly when her Instagram was recommended to us.
An entire account dedicated to finding happiness through asking complete strangers what makes them happy? Who is this beautiful woman and how can we give her a giant hug in appreciation of her work?
Thankfully (so thankfully) she was willing to give an interview to let us find out more about her incredible mission. And after finding out more about her, and about her ultimate goal with Happy Strangers, there’s no hug big enough to give to show how thankful we are that there are women like her in this world.
Read her story below, and you’ll understand what we mean. 🍌
Personal Happiness comes through bringing happiness to others
My name is Hannah Williams and I am the founder of Happy Strangers, a nonprofit that focuses on finding personal happiness through bringing happiness to others.
I also currently work as a photographer, a Social Media manager, and am the Marketing Director for Inman Solar, which is a solar energy company based in Atlanta, GA.
I was a cheerleader in college, and to be honest, that is why I went. I changed my major almost every semester and had no idea what I was going to do with my life long-term. I went from early childhood education, to dental hygiene, to interior design, to fashion design…
I am one of those people who is a little bit good at a lot of things and I have a lot of different interests, so it was hard for me to pick something and stick to it. Photography was the first thing to stick, and I love the story as to how I decided I wanted to become a photographer because it totally speaks into the mission behind Happy Strangers as well.
“Have you ever used one of these things before?”
I went to a music festival in Arkansas with some friends back in 2012, and during the set of a band called Tea Leaf Green I was approached by a stranger who was a photographer for the event. He walked up to me and said “Have you ever used one of these things before?” while holding up his DSLR camera with a crazy expensive lens on it.
I hadn’t, and he said he thought I would like it.
The guy gave me his camera and let me use his photo pass to go to the very front of the stage. I remember looking through the lens and watching the sweat drip off of these musicians faces and thinking “I have got to figure out how to do this forever.”
I was hooked.
He invited me to come back to his van and look through my images but I was a little nervous, because this guy WAS a stranger and the whole “come back to my van” thing freaked me out a little. When I declined his offer, he asked if I would give him an address so he could mail me some of my shots.
I didn’t think he would really do it. I gave him the address to where my mom was working, thinking that was a safe route.
Sure enough, a few weeks later I got a call from my mom saying I had a package in the mail at her work. This guy had picked out all of the shots I had taken from his camera, put them on a CD and mailed them to me.
I was so excited.
I immediately put them on my computer, edited them on some online free-editing software, and uploaded them to my Facebook. This lead to me getting hired to shoot a concert series in my hometown, which then lead to me being offered a job as a photographer at a yearbook company.
Now, yearbook photography isn’t the most exciting route to take, but I was in school for Fashion Design at the time and I didn’t feel like that was the route for me, either.
I took the job, moved back to my hometown and told myself that I had to stick it out for at least a year. I looked at it as my “school” since I didn’t graduate.
I actually loved it, and ended up leaving to work as an assistant with both a wedding photographer, and a stylist who did more product work with a production team.
No pretenses. No expectations.
Photography is definitely something I have become passionate about over the years. I still go through so many stages of interests, and having a camera around my neck has turned into a secure constant for me. I love live music, I love physical activity… dancing, running, hiking, yoga, or even just walking. I like motorcycles, even though I still don’t have one of my own.
I think my favorite thing to do is to explore new places, and interact with different types of people. Having a conversation with a stranger excites me because there are no pre-tenses and no expectations. I love that I can photograph any and all of these interests and experiences, though.
When I look back at all of the strangers I have photographed over the years it honestly makes me emotional to have such a concrete way to hold on to a memory. I have met some amazing people on this journey.
I also love coffee… and my spiritual life is important to me. I identify as a Christian, but prayer/deepening my connection to God or the Universe or whatever you want to call that is a huge part of my life.
It started in a laundromat
After working for a photo assistant for some time, I ended up taking a job as a nanny to have more of a stable income in between the gigs. After a while, I got so involved with the family I was working for that I had stopped pursuing my photography goals as intensely.
I didn’t do that on purpose… I was just tired.
The family left for vacation for a week, and I had some down time to self-reflect.
I had an overwhelming feeling of angst and lack of purpose. It wasn’t like I had a big vision from the beginning, I just knew I needed a project to work on. I wanted to practice my photography skills, but didn’t know what that should look like.
It was actually my friend who had the idea that I start photographing strangers. He said “you always have the craziest stories from random people you talk to. Maybe you should just start taking pictures of these people.”
I thought that was a good idea, but wanted it to have a cohesive theme. We decided that asking people what made them happy would not only lead to a positive conversation, but would also be an interesting study.
We still don’t know who had the idea to call it Happy Strangers, but when I checked to see if it had been taken on Instagram, it hadn’t. I got the username, created an account, packed up a bag of laundry and headed to a laundromat. (I totally had a washer/dryer at my house, but thought it would be a good place to start.)
The project has changed a lot since the beginning, but that day I met some awesome people and knew it was something I wanted to keep doing. I had originally only planned on doing “100 Happy Strangers” so that I could have an end-goal, but I didn’t want to quit. I had finally found an avenue to put my energy into that felt like it had purpose, and that felt really good.
It’s Science. Or something.
I haven’t even brought up how this project changed from a photo-series into an action-based/interactive project with strangers. After about a year of taking pictures of people and asking them what made them happy, I started to feel the same angst I was feeling during the very beginning.
I had heard so many people’s stories and their reasons to be happy, but I wasn’t really doing anything with it besides sharing it with others. I was only asking questions, which didn’t feel fulfilling.
I prayed and meditated over this for a little while and knew I had to take some sort of action. I needed to quit asking so much and start showing people instead.
If you go and pick up any book on happiness, or if you read any article, watch any motivational video, etc. you will find one word that pops up repeatedly. Gratitude. The more you practice gratitude, the happier you will become. It’s science (or something. I don’t know, but it’s everywhere and it’s true.)
This is why Thank You Thursday became a thing. Each Thursday myself and whoever was helping/supporting me would show up in a coffee shop with arts and crafts supplies, letters, envelopes and stamps and we would invite strangers to join us and write Thank You cards to whoever they were feeling grateful for that day.
There has been many other ways Happy Strangers has and will continue to promote not just happiness for one person, but the idea of finding personal happiness by searching for it in others.
The actions are meant to be two-fold. So if you write a Thank You card, you are passing it on to someone else. If we do give-aways, the recipient will always receive two gifts… one to keep and one to give.
I finally, after 3 and a half years, have decided to turn this whole thing into a brand. I locked down a visual brand as of recently (fonts/colors/logo), and am looking to extend it beyond my personal experiences.
I just got Thank You cards designed and printed from a store and this week will actually be the first Thank You Thursday that will take place without me being present. I am really excited about this because my goal is to extend this idea throughout the country (or world, really… if we are talking big goals.)
Ideally, I will partner with some companies and do more giveaways, both through Instagram and in real life, and get free Thank You card stations planted as many places as possible. I want the brand to be recognizable, and for people to associate the three stripes as a reminder to be kind to the people around them (AKA share a little happy).
“If you aren’t failing or getting rejected then you probably aren’t trying hard enough”
I tend to think of anyone and everyone as my friend until proven otherwise. I think that’s a nice way to approach life in general, but once this project became a “thing” there was a time period when I put some pressure on myself which resulted in me feeling nervous.
If you’re looking for advice for how to approach a person just in general, without a camera and an agenda… then I would say to talk to them like you talk to your best friend and if they act like you are a werido then just know that it doesn’t really matter. If it is awkward then just don’t talk to them anymore but at first just assume that they are going to like you.
Now, if you are looking for advice on approaching people with a journalistic goal, then I would say to seek out rejection as often as possible. Continue to approach people as yourself and with kindness, but expect to be shot down sometimes and don’t let that be a fear.
I sometimes view it as my job to approach the seemingly unapproachable just because it probably will be the most interesting story. I say that if you aren’t failing or aren’t getting rejected then you probably aren’t trying hard enough. The more comfortable you are with rejection the more fun you will have along the way.
As Humans we all want to feel the same emotion
All-in-all, the most valuable thing I have learned through this project is that everyone in life genuinely wants to be happy, but it looks different to all of us.
There are people who love jumping out of airplanes, people who love reading a book in their favorite chair, people who love eating all kinds of crazy foods, people who love spending time with their family or friends, people who love going out alone because it makes them feel free, people who love watching movies, people who love going on hikes… I could go on forever.
The point is that happiness looks different to everyone, but as humans we all want to feel that emotion.
I believe that if we respect that in each other, it will be easier for us to feel some empathy and maybe just maybe get along a little bit better.
A happier world is a safer world to live in, am I right?
Some highlights from the Happy Strangers Instagram account 👇
This is what she has to say about her project @storybehindthis, and what makes her happy: “Conversations and community bring me the most joy. There is nothing greater than being in the presence of others who make me laugh until it hurts or amongst those who expand my worldview. But possibly above all, I love to hear stories from friends, family, and strangers alike as stories are a window to the inner workings of a person’s mind. I wanted to create a community where we share authentic and honest stories about our lives, particularly in a world where social media bombards us with curated versions of reality.”
“He is from Austria, and visiting the US by himself for 6 weeks. He started in New York and just made it to Atlanta yesterday. Martin wasn’t allowed to bring his bag into the venue, so ended up heading back to his hotel and we split ways. Playing the guitar makes Martin happy. His favorite bands are @snarkypuppy and @vulfpeck . He’s also both a philosophy and English student in Vienna, and says he actually enjoys his studies. His favorite food is lasagna (like Garfield) ☺️. 💙 Martin says that if you’re sad, he suggests reflecting on the issues that make you feel that way. As a philosophy student, he’s learned to appreciate the value in self reflection, and encourages others to do the same.”
“Maggie is a mother of an adorable little boy named Ezra, and also works as an Occupational Therapist, specifically working with children. She loves her family, macaroni and cheese, and seeing the kids she works with make progress. I asked her what advice she would give someone who was having a bad day, and she said that her best advice is to find happiness in things that are not situational. She is a Christian, and says that her faith in Christ is what keeps her happy, not her circumstance. Maggie said that she finds comfort in troubling times through prayer and knowing that Jesus lived as a human, meaning he actually understands our struggles.”
“I actually met him about 3 years ago in front of a bar in Atlanta, and serendipitously again when I was visiting Colorado. The story was kind of crazy, actually. I was in Denver with my friend Abby (featured when I met her in January, 2016) when she told me that she met this guy (named Prashant) who was from Georgia and looking to move to Colorado. He had driven all the way out to Grand Junction (350 miles from Denver), had car issues and was stranded. Prashant is a distinct name, so when she told me this, I said “I met a guy named Prashant once.” I didn’t expect it to be the SAME GUY. It was, though.”
Get your dose of happy here! 👇
All images are property of their respective owners.