“The Happy Show” is the result of edgy Austrian design artist Stefan Sagmeister’s fascination with the psychology of happiness. Known for designing album covers for recording artists like Lou Reed, the Talking Heads, and the Rolling Stones, Sagmeister took a one-year sabbatical from his regular commercial design work in 2000 to launch an informal investigation of the components of happiness. His reasons were threefold: a boredom with his routine, a fear of rejection, and a habitual avoidance of social confrontation. But it was because of Sagmeister’s self-proclaimed addictive personality style that his one-year endeavor turned into ten. “The Happy Show” represents the fruits of the designer’s decade-long “happiness project” and draws on research from leading experts in the field of psychology.
On display at MOCA Pacific Design Center until June 9, 2013, the experiential “infotainment” exhibit calls to mind writer Malcolm Gladwell’s brand of pop psychology. Gladwell—and now Sagmeister—have illustrated that a spoonful of sugar helps psychological research go down. As a result, “The Happy Show” has somewhat of a children’s-museum feel to it. The exception of course being the designer’s whimsical and often subversive sense of humor. In Sagmeister’s world, the lower receptacle of an ordinary (non-exhibit) electrical outlet gets its own word balloon and “f-bomb,” while cartoon drawings of nude men and women make more than one cameo appearance (one pair graphically “interacts” on a set of elevator doors). His approach to art and design has always been unapologetically bold, and since embarking on his quest for happiness, the designer-provacateur hasn’t looked back. Instead, he’s looking ahead. Because for Sagmeister—and most of us as well—happiness is truly a lifelong pursuit.
On the first floor of the snack-size museum, “The Happy Show” begins with a visual representation of “the happiness curve” in the U.S. as a function of income. As one might expect, happiness climbs steadily as income increases, but surprisingly plateaus once salaries reach $80,000. Indeed, psychologist and Gallup researcher Ed Diener (aka “Dr. Happiness”) has studied over 150 countries in the world—roughly 99%—and found nearly identical ratings of “subjective well-being” (a term he coined) between Forbes magazine’s richest Americans, the Pennsylvania Amish, and the African Maasai (Diener & Seligman, 2004). It’s worth noting that the Maasai are a herding tribe who live without the luxury of running water or electricity and reside in huts made of dung. Perhaps there’s something to the old adage “take time to smell the roses.” As Sagmeister himself can attest, even in the cushiest corner office, gardens cannot grow.
En route to the second level of the exhibition, Sagmeister presents a pictorial chronology of marital satisfaction. Having just dispelled “the joy of money” to happiness seekers, here he challenges universal beliefs about “the joy of children” (another reason to leave the kiddos at home). While newlyweds start out quite happy, those same levels of marital satisfaction return only when couples’ children leave home—during the “empty nest” period. While empty nest syndrome is widely thought to be characterized by a prolonged phase of intense grief and loneliness once one’s progeny leave home, Harvard psychologist and Stumbling on Happiness (2007) author Daniel Gilbert suggests that future empty-nesters should anticipate the opposite outcome: “smiling.”
Economics Nobel laureate/psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues developed a technique to assess women’s satisfaction with childrearing (and other daily life events), thus allowing happiness researchers to take those surprising observations a step further. The Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) is a systematic journaling technique that aids recall of the previous day’s experiences by imagining them as “a continuous series of scenes or episodes in a film.” Next, respondents are instructed to rate how they felt during each individual episode. In Kahneman et al’s 2004 study, a sample of nearly one thousand women on average rated childrearing as less satisfying than eating, watching TV, and exercising—and only slightly more enjoyable than housework (Sagmeister’s example: “cleaning toilet bowls”). These results diverge significantly from previous research by Juster (1985) and Flood (1987) who found the exact opposite pattern of results: childrearing was listed as one of the most enjoyable daily activities, with grocery shopping and housecleaning rated dead last. Kahneman and his colleagues explain their surprising conclusions as owing to the DRM’s reliance on ratings of specific episodic events, as opposed to ratings based on global beliefs (“I enjoy my children”) and appraisals of non-typical childrearing experiences. In addition, respondents’ happiness ratings using the DRM are less susceptible to social desirability biases, which were likely a factor in previous research’s inflated estimates of the happiness quotient of kids.
Other stairway nuggets of wisdom include suggestions for happiness-inducing activities (i.e., going to a religious service, working, and sex—in that order); the “happiness hierarchy” (psychologist Abraham Maslow’s familiar Hierarchy of Needs); and the difference between passionate and companionate love. With respect to the latter, Sagmeister delivers sobering news to nascent couples hoping to spend a pleasant afternoon at the museum. The cocaine- and heroin-like effects of dopamine released during passionate love are biologically impossible to maintain, according to research by eminent love and desire psychologist Elaine Hatfield (1993) and happiness researcher Jonathan Haidt (2006). Some estimates give passionate love a shelf life of just six to eight months before it starts to turn sour. Companionate love’s positive effects are slower to rise and may never reach the same highs of passionate love, but can sustain for much longer—even a lifetime.
At the threshold to the second level of the exhibit lies what Daniel Gilbert refers to as a “happyometer.” The happiness researcher defines this device as:
“a perfectly reliable instrument that allows an observer to measure with complete accuracy the characteristics of another person’s subjective experience so that the measurement can be taken, recorded, and compared with another” (p. 71).
Gilbert further elaborates that such a singular measurement device does not and cannot exist. Accordingly, Sagmeister aptly parodies the absurdity of a happyometer by using ten gumball dispensers of Dr. Seuss-like proportions as a happiness self-report measurement technique. This exhibit invites museum-goers to take a yellow gumball from one of the dispensers numbered “1-10,” corresponding to how they would rate their overall level of happiness. Sagmeister’s gumball science is a creative twist on psychologists’ more traditional Likert scales (convenient bipolar rating scales with equal intervals used to assess level of agreement with survey items). The unexpected result is not that the gumballs are of the elusive “banana” flavor, but that such self-report measures actually provide a fairly veridical assessment of one’s general happiness. Sagmeister explains that psychologists have found self-ratings of happiness to correlate highly with ratings made by family and friends, and these self-reports even correspond to blood flow in the prefrontal cortex as measured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
And why wouldn’t they? In the exhibit, all ten dispensers house identical gumballs so there’s no advantage in sampling from the other nine. Moreover, there’s no wrong answer and no reason to lie—unless museum-goers’ happiness ratings were influenced by their desire to appear to possess socially appropriate affect (although my companion chose a gumball from dispenser #6 and no one seemed to mind). Borrowing a technique from Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, and Sechrest’s seminal 1966 book on unobtrusive measures, by examining “physical trace” evidence (either as “accretion,” the build-up of material, or here: “erosion,” the wearing away of it) one can roughly estimate the overall level of happiness for visitors of “The Happy Show.” The disappearance or “erosion” of Sagmeister’s gumballs reveals that on any given Sunday (and this one in particular), museum-goers’ happiness was negatively skewed: more gumballs were missing from dispensers 7-10 than 1-4. Such an unobtrusive measure is no stranger to museum exhibit appraisals: Webb and his colleagues interpreted the substantial wearing down of tiles surrounding the Museum of Science and Industry’s beloved Baby Chick Hatchery as evidence of its popularity. Fifty years later, the exhibit is still a mainstay at the Chicago museum.
On the other hand, maybe there’s a more parsimonious interpretation of the data for Sagmeister’s Yellow Number 5 quasi-experiment. Perhaps the popular fallacy is actually true: people are happier in California. Schkade and Kahneman, however, discredits this rival hypothesis in their 1998 paper. The authors failed to find significant differences between Midwestern and West Coast students’ happiness, arguing that this myth is proliferated by non-Californians’ tendency to weight too heavily the satisfaction residents derive from living in The Golden State. This “focusing illusion” is but one of a whole slew of affective forecasting errors we make. If mood is “climate” and affect is “weather” (according to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 2000), then just as meteorologists are notoriously inaccurate at predicting the weather, so too are we in our ability to forecast what our future hedonic moments will really feel like.
Continuing on to the second floor of the exhibition, we find an installation that Sagmeister likely based on the Zeigarnik Effect—our tendency to remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones. A 1992 study of this effect by Schiffman and Greist-Bousquet found that individuals also tend to overestimate the duration of unfinished tasks. Extending their finding to principles of Gestalt psychology, the authors cite our common inherent “need” to finish a task once it is started. Goals left uncompleted can result in a frustrating lack of closure, and even feelings of failure. As a demonstration of this phenomenon, Sagmeister displays a large scrolling neon message which reads: “Actually doing the things I set out to do increases my overall level of satisfaction” in front of a stationary bicycle. Museum-goers are encouraged to ride the bike until a final red message illuminates. Bicyclists who quit pedaling before the task is complete will likely remember their incomplete objective whether they like it or not—and perhaps even experience dissonance over abandoning their mission. To avoid being plagued by these intrusive thoughts and their associated discomfort, we persevere in our efforts to see Sagmeister’s promised red neon message appear. And thus we succeed in increasing our “overall level of satisfaction.”
What’s inspiring about “The Happy Show” is that an envelope-pushing designer has cultivated his own personal style of happiness and is sharing what he learned with us not only in the present exhibition, but ostensibly within his ongoing design work as well. The edgy designer known for his shock value maintains his sharp sense of wit throughout the MOCA exhibit while demonstrating a healthy dose of curious scientific intellect. Sagmeister graffitis his cheeky maxims and happiness observations on otherwise overlooked crevices, corners, electrical outlets, fire alarms, thermostats, handrails, and even in the bathrooms (the message on the back of the door in the women’s restroom only reads left to right when viewed in the mirror). If you’re unsure if something unusual is part of Sagmeister’s show, it’s probably safe to assume that it is. At “The Happy Show,” an open mind and a keen set of observation skills are required because the somewhat divisive designer has once again proven that the devil is in the details.
Overall, it is statistically improbable that you will leave Stefan Sagmeister’s MOCA exhibition without feeling “happier”—despite the disclaimer at the entrance promising otherwise in order to purposely lower your expectations (yet another technique of the designer’s for achieving happiness). It is my sincerest hope that Sagmeister will soon be sampling from gumball dispenser #10 (in a video on exhibit, the designer admits that he’s “somewhere around an 8”), as will non-happiness seekers. For those inquiring minds who are chasing happiness, a good place to start is Stefan Sagmeister’s “The Happy Show.” Meet you at gumball dispenser #9.
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