Within the first five minutes of walking into graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s “The Happy Show” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, I found myself being instructed to drop a quarter into a machine whose destination seemed to be smack in the middle of the sidewalk outside (and conferred no immediate gratification to do so: no gumball, no decoder ring, no stuffed toy to reward the action). On blind faith and curiosity, I did so. I then found myself reading the inner thoughts of the random permanent fixtures on the wall, black marker scribbles wrapped in bubble cartoons. The thermostat by the Exit door said “Hello. Somebody there? … Anybody??” The phone jack near the floor said “I LAY DOWN AND DIED TWO years ago … PLAYING FUNERAL.” I’m still scratching my head over that one.Then I pressed a button and pulled a card from a slot in the wall, as routine as taking a ticket when parking the car in a garage. The card read “DO FIVE PUSHUPS NOW.” Between the capital letters and my dedication to authentic journalism, I did as I was told. Hovering above the floor in plank position, halfway through my third pushup, I was getting skeptical. I had anticipated something of a cliché; a visual depiction of “this is what happiness is all about, get it?!” Instead, I was finding conundrums and oddities.
Just to the left of the push button with the fortune cookie cards (although admittedly, I’ve never had a fortune cookie instruct “drop and give me 20”), a sign read “THIS EXHIBITION WILL NOT MAKE YOU HAPPIER.” Oohhhh, ok then. The artist had just turned the tables, lowering the bar to a point where my expectations either fell to meet it, or I took responsibility for any disappointment incurred. I had been so warned.
As I turned to the opposite wall, I was greeted by a set of elevator doors that made me burst into giggles. On one door, the artist had drawn a picture of a man, in profile, standing naked. On the adjacent inner door, he had drawn a long pole, about halfway up the man’s body. When the elevator door opened, the pole retracted to release the passengers from within, while seemingly also releasing the man of his sexual readiness. When the doors closed, the pole would elongate again. He was ready for Round 2. Can you visualize the picture I’m painting?
To the left of the elevators, Sagmeister had me at “XANAX.” There was a thick, black line drawn across the wall, separating the “Up” and “Down” arrows. Above the line, under the word “UP,” were listed “ADDERALL,” “RITALIN,” and “COCAINE.” Below the black line, under “DOWN,” were listed “XANAX,” “VALIUM” and “PERCOCET.” I found myself highly amused by such a clever use of the space to talk about the pharmacology of happiness. I was on a drug trip with the artist now, literally, as taking a ride in the elevator had me reading pharma terms. And this reeled me in, made me want to walk on and see what other clever ways the artist was going to spark my interest in a subject of which I thought I had seen every interpretation. Sagmeister had my attention and appreciation, his wry sense of humor a predictable and delightful accompaniment to happiness.
The Exit Sign, Phone Jack, and Thermostat
Moving further along the exhibit, I marveled at what my friend and colleague Lisa quite aptly described as “opportunistic with space.” Lisa was describing Sagmeister’s use of every piece of signage, fixture, or functionality in the ICA to express ideas about happiness-how’s it’s cultivated, contemplated, or conferred. A black circle was drawn around the red EXIT sign suspended above the emergency door by the elevators. To its right, the word “EVERY.” To its left, the words “IS A START,” forming the complete phrase “EVERY EXIT IS A START.” It reads a little trite, but it got me thinking about the phrase in a very concrete, visual way. Clever, and effective, because these are adages often reserved for spiritual classes and Confucius, making them hard to conceptualize. With this association made, I’ll probably now look at every “Exit” sign I encounter and remember that to walk away from one thing is to walk toward something new, that when God “closes a door, He opens a window,” or any other way to phrase the significance of hope. Hope is so pivotal to happiness and well-being. For example, psychologist C. R. Snyder, the creator of Hope Theory, underscores that higher hope is “consistently related to better outcomes in academics, athletics, physical health, psychological adjustment, and psychotherapy.” Right on, Sagmeister!
A Hand and Pro-social Feelings, A Good Smell and HappinessAs I walked on, I encountered other clever depictions of happiness and its myriad forms and representations. A series of latex arms protruded from one wall, silver platters resting on hands outstretched, offering the artist’s favorite ginger candy from Bali. “Go ahead, you can take one,” said the guard to our right, and we did, endearing us to an artist we’d never met, as he metaphorically-literally offered us a hand and a gift. I smiled, touched by the gesture and appreciative of what Sagmeister understood either intuitively or from empirical research: the power of giving. Stephen Post puts forth compelling evidence for the idea that positive philanthropy has incredible value for the doer, as much, in fact, as for the receiver.
Further along, a small, circular peephole had been carved out of the wall, revealing a workshop full of wood and tools behind it. Apparently, this was an actual workspace for builders of exhibits in the museum, and the artist had capitalized on the opportunity to write, “In surveys on the happiest professions, carpenters and woodworkers always do well. Working in an environment with good smelling materials and being able to see the physical results of your work at the end of each day have a positive impact on one’s well-being.” News to me. I promptly consider finding employment in these sectors. Or buying scratch-and-sniff stickers that smell like cedar and eucalyptus trees for my next office gig.
Making Data Fun?In a glass case spanning floor to ceiling, the artist had stacks of dollar bills, lined up in ascending order on a graph. He labeled this the “Happiness Curve,” a black line curving up and to the right, reaching a plateau at 80 thousand dollars. The X axis was amount, in thousands of dollars. The Y axis, happiness levels. That is to say, happiness levels increased until $80K in income, above which there was a plateau. Translation: increased amounts of wealth do not correlate with increased levels of happiness over and above a certain level.
This seems an obvious conclusion to the likes of a Positive Psychologist. But for others, it’s a fascinating thing to contemplate. Case in point: “Wait, you’re saying a million extra dollars a year isn’t gonna make me happier?!” posited a colleague exploring the exhibit with us, a look of “I beg to differ” on his face. Nope, not according to all the research anyway. Presumably because all that extra wealth comes with its own set of stresses and problems; just ask lottery winners. In a legendary study comparing happiness levels of lottery winners versus paralyzed accident victims, the accident victims were in fact happier than their moneyed counterparts because they tended to appreciate life’s inherent gifts more (Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman, 1978). In the words of the Notorious BIG, “Mo money, Mo Problems.”We reached the culmination of the exhibit with a presentation of myriad statistics, visual enough that I was engaged in the reading and didn’t glaze over when presented with all those numbers. It was good reinforcement of data I had already come across in the Positive Psych world, but never quite so innovatively. Concepts like what factors contribute most to happiness (It’s 50% genetics), what countries seem to produce the happiest citizens (Scandinavian countries seem to oust all others), and what activities seem to contribute the most to happiness were all depicted visually on the sprawling wall leading toward the exit.
I was enthralled by the data all over again; and the other visitors to my left and right were boisterously chatting at what they were being presented with. I suspect that was the artist’s only order of business, to get us thinking about what he’s thinking about, by giving us a tour of his thinking organ. And he’s thinking about happiness.
An Unlikely Guru
I found myself unexpectedly surprised by Sagmeister’s irreverent, often nebulous, but still logical mash-up of a journey to figure out how to increase happiness from within, a training regimen akin to a physical exercise program. The artist took us on a journey of the mind, splitting his head open to let us peek inside and perhaps actually learn something from his experiences. Whether I walked away from the exhibit happier or not was not actually the point of “The Happy Show.” And from that perspective, the show is a resounding success. It’s also pretty cool to note that Sagmeister used to design album covers for icons like The Talking Heads and The Rolling Stones. Happiness has often been outside the realm of “cool” in that “real” artists are supposed to be angst-ridden and conflict-bound. So the fact that design guru Sagmeister is even taking on the subject of happiness in a visual, often interactive, and scientific way, gets me amped. Artist’s disclaimers and author’s initial skepticism begone, I left, er … happy.
Footnote: As we exited the museum, Lisa reminded me about the coins we had dropped into the slot that seemed to fall right onto the sidewalk. We went to the spot outside, and found a big yellow wooden box labeled “Help Yourself.” There lay only one quarter there. Lisa and I had deposited 2 between us. Clearly, people were giving, and others were taking. I walked away, smiling at how a quarter was a small price to pay for good karma.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917-927. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.527
Post S., & Neimark, J. (2007). Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving. USA: Broadway books.
Snyder, C.R. (2002). Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 13(4), 249-275.
All pictures are used with permission of the author.