Dacher Keltner There are about 8 billion humans on earth. And in 2021, we took about one and a half trillion photos. Over 90% of them were taken on our cell phones because it’s easy, it’s simple, it’s always nearby in our pockets or handbags.
But what if you could only take a small handful of photos this week? And they all had to be meaningful to you. What would you capture?
Speaker One I think I would have a picture of my little studio apartment that I just moved into that’s all mine. And that means a lot to me.
Speaker Two I would definitely photograph my family.
Family What else would you take a picture of? You. Who’s you? Mama! What else? Baba!
Speaker Four Birds, and you know plants and flowers, and the sky—like the sunset sky.
Speaker Five The friends that I’m able to spend time with outside of class and work.
Speaker Four ...um, and my dog.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to the Science of Happiness. Our guest today joins us after trying a practice where he took photographs of people, places, and things that gave him a sense of meaning.
Sulyman Qardash is the lead singer of Kabul Dreams, a rock band he formed in Afghanistan that’s now based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Sulyman was a guest on our show when the Science of Happiness first launched and I still remember that episode because he told all these amazing stories about forming a band in the heart of Kabul, and what it was like to perform there at the time. Sulyman, welcome back to The Science of Happiness.
Sulyman Qardash Thank you. Thanks for having me back.
Dacher Keltner I remember in our first interview, you know, learning about your band, Kabul Dreams and just the remarkable story of forming a band in Afghanistan…
Sulyman Qardash When I was 17, we decided: what if we play a show on a street and maybe to play on a street that a lot of explosions happened? And then we decided to do a street concert. And people really liked it. People like music. People are tired of what’s happening even then and now. Music in general—art—helps you through a lot of things.
Dacher Keltner That was in 2018 and Kabul Dreams is still putting out music today.
You know, one of my favorite ideas about the arts is from the great philosopher—who’s really underappreciated. It’s Susanne Langer and she said something like art is about creating symbolic forms that help us understand human feeling.
Music does that. And you tried a happiness practice that also uses the arts to symbolize and represent our passions or feelings. In this case, you took photographs of things that made you feel life was meaningful, and you took those photos for a week. And then at the end of the week, you wrote down answers to questions like, “What does this photo represent and why is it meaningful?” And in some sense, that’s why we do art—which is we create things so that we can give them to other people to arrive at a shared understanding of how we feel.
I checked out the photos that you took, and they’re amazing. Can I ask you about one of them?
Sulyman Qardash Sure.
Dacher Keltner It’s this really cool shot of a Kabul Dreams concert at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The shot is from the stage and you see the crowd of concert goers sitting out there and this beautiful ferris wheel in the background. What was going on in your mind when you took that picture?
Sulyman Qardash Yeah, we were playing a concert, a free concert, and there were three Afghan artists who were in there. And, it was a different feeling once you get up on the stage. I’m like, “Wow, this is what I miss. This is what I miss doing” because it’s been taken away from us in the last almost two years. I’m like, “Wow,” and I miss going to the shows to watch and get inspired.
I used to go at least once a month to see a band in San Francisco. Since we can’t do that, it was very emotional. Also, you know, part of it is: the audience was a lot of Afghan refugees that recently came and we talked to them before the show and after the show. It was very like, I don’t know—to see in their faces, they try to enjoy, but they just recently came. Everything is still very fresh. They literally locked their home and left with the backpack.
I mean, I’ve been in that similar situation in the past. We have to leave and come back and leave home. You know, I was a refugee in Uzbekistan and I came and then we moved to the United States. It is hard to begin a new life again and again and again and again. I think that part kind of made me very emotional too. And towards the end of the show, this guy came up and hugged us, and then we took him to the backstage and we’re talking. He’s like, “Yeah, I came a few months ago. I’ve been to all of your shows back home.” I’m like, wow, we left almost six years ago or seven years ago. Like, you see the people that you saw back home and you’re miles away on the other side of the world, and now he’s here and he’s not just traveling. He’s not a tourist. He realized that he needs to start again now again, probably. It just, yeah, it was very emotional.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. I hear you.
There’s some remarkable photos, but one is of your son, Aiden, who’s looking for a ball under the sofa. And it’s this amazing photo of, like he’s disappearing under the sofa. So tell us about that moment.
Sulyman Qardash Yeah, Aiden was playing with the ball and you know, I’m trying to get him into soccer. I think it’s funny, as a Central Asian parent, I always thought that I would never enforce those things. I’m going to be a free spirit parent. No, that didn’t happen at all. I’m still trying to keep the regiment and have a schedule and plan, so I wanted him to be interested in soccer. So, we got different sizes of soccer balls.
But there’s one which is very small and if he hits it, it goes under the sofa. So he happens to like that little toy and he hit it underneath the sofa and I’m like, “Oh, you want to get it?” But then he knows that I’m holding a camera. He’s big enough to understand that: Okay, if Dad flips the phone, he’s going to film. He’s not going to do anything that I say. So I put the camera away and then he was playing and the ball went underneath the sofa. I’m like, “Oh, you want to go get it?” And he’s looking at me, looking at the ball, and looking at the camera like, I know he’s going to pick up the camera. Plus, I was using a small 50 millimeter manual lens. I couldn’t just tap and shoot. I had to focus. The moment he went under the sofa, I just ran and got the camera and took a picture.
Dacher Keltner It’s one of the things I love about this practice is, you know, we take so many photos. I mean, especially today, post them and just mindlessly in some sense. And this exercise gets you to reflect on them and think about, “What are they revealing about the patterns to your life?” I want to ask you about another photo if you don’t mind, which is this amazing drawing of Aiden, your son on his chalkboard. Why’d you take this photo and what do you make of this drawing?
Sulyman Qardash Well, I went to the immersive experience of Van Gogh in San Francisco. You just sit and there’s a lot of projectors on the wall and you just sit there and take all in, sort of right? Great experience. Then I came home and I was going through the photos. One of the photos that I saw, which I chose from the immersive experience of Van Gogh, and I looked at the chalkboard. The parent in me, I was like, “My son can be the next whatever he wants to be, too. That looks really interesting.”
And then, you know, I’m to his mom and she is to me. “Have you seen this? This is beautiful.” I’m like, “Yeah, it is beautiful,” and I’m getting excited that she’s getting excited. He’s moved on to the next toy, already.
I still listen to some songs that I used to love back home. It’s not even a slow song, but it gets me really emotional because I remember exactly—for example, there’s one song that I used to walk from my work to school. I used to walk every day and that was part of my everyday playlist to listen. Every time when I listen to them, it just gets me emotional. And that’s like a really odd punk song. It’s not even slow, emotional, a love song or anything. I think that’s what it is. People connect differently. People take away different messages, depending on their own situation, and I think that’s what I did. I’m looking at my son’s drawing on a chalkboard and I’m like, “Wow, this is really beautiful.” The kid does not know anything. He probably went and did something and then left. It’s up to us how we are going to interpret the whole thing.
Dacher Keltner Tell us about one of the most memorable things you took a photo of. What were some of your favorite photos that week of the practice?
Sulyman Qardash I think it’s going to be my son, because you can see his photos were taken multiple times in the practice. I think if I did this project probably, or practice, three years ago, I would have a completely different photo. You know, my values have changed, I think. And my responsibilities have changed too. It took me a little time to really kind of cope with that because I’m like, “Oh, I’m an artist, I should be doing this.”
I’m an artist and a parent now, so I shouldn’t forget that part. Not that I ever did. It just—you know one of those conversations that you normally have with yourself. “Yes, you can do it. You can be both.” You don’t have to be one or you don’t have to leave something because then you might turn into an unhappy person, because art and creativity is a huge part of my life. It’s also kind of an outlet to stay sane in the world that we’re living in.
Dacher Keltner These photos, I mean, they’re taking me into what your family life is like in such a nice form of reflection and I’m curious: what’s it like for you having done this for a week and done photos of your family and your music and your guitar and Aiden’s drawings. How’s it make you feel now to look at this week of time?
Sulyman Qardash I think the main thing was, “Wow, I’ve changed so much”. My perspective has changed a lot, I think.
I think it’s a good self realization, to be honest. I was like, “Wow. Not everybody asks you to do that.” A lot of projects that I normally do, whether it’s a photo project or music, it has a purpose, right? Oh, this is a deadline we get, you know, we have to do this and here are the instructions. Or, “Please make sure to do these.” So there’s that part. But this is completely kind of open, free, with sort of no restrictions, and it’s up to you what boundaries you want to set and what you want to picture.
And it’s up to you what you want to choose, how far you want to go—do you want to really display your family? I think it’s a great practice to do every now and then to understand where you are at, what you have in life, especially with all the things going on in the world, especially in Afghanistan. The last picture of my son was: it was completely dark because he already fall asleep at night around 2:00 o’ clock. I snuck in and tried to take his photo. I’m like, “Okay, he has a roof over his head. He has food. He has a bed.” That’s the picture I’m like: “This is my achievement.” Whatever it is. And this is also my privilege that this is my life. I’ve been on the other side and I’m here now. And I ultimately understand this is what people are missing out back home.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. What do you hope you’ll take forward in the future from this practice?
Sulyman Qardash I think we all like to hold onto what we have as long as we can. I think my takeaway is “Do not mess this up,” I guess. Whatever that means, to be very honest, and also to have a somewhat balance in life. When I scroll through the photos of my family and the music, whether it’s my guitar that’s been with me around the world in the last decade or whether it’s the venue or the scene that I took from the stage before the show, I think this is what I am and this is what I do.
You can only look into continuing this in a way that ten years later, I can still have something right? And it doesn’t have to be an object—it’s more of an achievement of self-satisfaction, to be very honest. I think we just want to get better. I think there should be a, maybe incremental progress. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Dacher Keltner Well, Sulyman Qardash thank you for being on the show again. It’s so great to have you back and for your music and for sharing these sublime photos from a week in your life. So, thanks for being on The Science of Happiness.
Sulyman Qardash Thank you. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Dacher Keltner Why is it that taking a photograph can sharpen the lens of meaning in our lives?
Michael Steger Visual arts or expressive arts are a really good way of getting these nonverbal inclinations out that might be vaster than what we can put into words.
Dacher Keltner More on the science of how we find meaning, up next.
One challenge in the field of psychology is that we often rely on questionnaires and words and self-report surveys to capture the feelings we have about what’s vast and mysterious that transcend our words.
Michael Steger How can we get people to express things without needing to filter it through that conversational social cognitive lens of, “I’m going to say this, they’ll think this about me.”
Dacher Keltner One way is through art.
Michael Steger Visual arts or expressive arts are a really good way of getting these nonverbal inclinations out and a big limitation, particularly for meaning, is kind of intellectualizing or verbalizing this idea that might be vaster than what we can put into words.
Dacher Keltner Michael Steger is a psychology professor and the founder and the director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University.
In one experiment, he had people take a handful of photographs of things that made their lives feel meaningful and then write about it.
Michael Steger The first step was to get some pretty cheap digital cameras—and these were cheap. They’re so cheap that they were powered by two AA batteries. They had an internal storage memory that could hold eight to 12 photos, depending on how bright the light was. So, there was a self-limiting piece there that we wanted to explain to our participants that, you know, you’ll have to be a little selective.
Dacher Keltner After they were given the cameras, they were given these instructions:
Michael Steger We said, simply put, what you’re going to do is you’re going to spend a week. We’d like you to spread out the photos you’ll take and just take a photo of what makes your life meaningful. Come back after that week. We’ll ask you some questions, and that’s it.
Dacher Keltner A week later, they handed over their cameras.
Michael Steger So we saw lots of themes—and those were mostly taken from the verbal descriptions or the written descriptions of the photos—because the photos themselves could be a little perplexing at times. You know, someone’s porch.
Dacher Keltner Someone emptying a garbage bin in a building.
Michael Steger We got a lot of parking lots for some reason.
Dacher Keltner A stereo speaker.
Michael Steger There’s samples of photos with shoes in them. Books.
Dacher Keltner A rock, a car. Everyone got a printout of their pictures and were instructed to write an answer to this prompt: “What does this photo represent, and why is it meaningful?” Themes were relationships, education…
Michael Steger Half of our sample said education. This is a college student sample, so hopefully that’s not surprising.
Dacher Keltner Seventy percent said some sort of hobby or leisure activity.
Michael Steger Fifty eight percent said Nature.
Dacher Keltner A third of them took pictures of their pets.
Michael Steger When we removed it from the idea that you have to come and tell us all these wise things about how meaningful your life is, it freed people up to just spend time thinking about how their lives unfold for them. And I think it got rid of a little bit of that demand around: you have to say certain things like “charity” or “working hard towards goals” and things like that.
Dacher Keltner After the writing exercise, they reported feeling an increased sense of meaning in life and more satisfaction. They were happier.
Michael Steger This process of spending some time taking photos and considering how you’ll share them and how you’ll describe them when you share them seems to make people have much more positive moods, experience more positive emotions like joy, and experience lower levels of negative emotions like anxiety or anger while at the same time making them feel more like their lives are meaningful and have purpose in them. So, it seems to be a pretty fun way of exploring meaning with perhaps a side benefit of being a wellbeing intervention.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. On our next episode of The Science of Happiness:
Youngmi Mayer I remember walking in one day and I said, “I really want to be a stand up comedian.” And that was the first time that I had said that in my entire life. I had been holding it in for like 30 years. And then after I said it out loud, literally the next day, I started doing open mics and I just never stopped.
Dacher Keltner You can try out the practice on our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu
As always, tell us what worked best for you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag happiness pod.
Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Our Associate producer is Kristie Song. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo at BMP Audio. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.