Saturday, May 19, 2012

Musings on Stefan Sagmeister's The Happy Show

In April I came across a New York Times article about an art exhibit by Stefan Sagmeister called The Happy Show.  ( There are more than 10 books on my shelves on happiness, and I have often blogged about how much the positive psychology movement has affected me. (  When I noticed that Sagmeister’s The Happy Show was opening at the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Contemporary Art, I vowed to go see it, even though I had never heard of him or his work as a designer.  I finally got around to going last week.

The outing started on a high note as I easily found a parking place on the street near the museum located at 36th and Sansom on the Penn campus; it probably helped that graduation was over, and most of the students have left for summer vacation.  I did note that something as simple as easy parking could put me in a positive mood.  Since I was early and the museum did not open until 11:00 AM, I took a pleasant walk around the Penn campus and was most impressed by Alexander Liberman’s massive sculpture Covenant and the red brick Fisher Fine Arts Library. 

Upon entering the museum at 11:00 AM, I was told by the two security guards that I could not see the show until I checked in at the front desk.  After waiting 15 minutes, a young woman appeared, but she was “just an intern” and could not check me in.  The guards tried to be helpful, but it was frustrating to just wait for the official person to check me in.  When he finally arrived, he was did not apologize and really only wanted to record my zip code on his computer screen:  19072.

Climbing the stairs to the second floor gallery, I was not in the best of moods, but the appearance of giant monkey balloons inscribed with “Everybody always thinks they are right” immediately took my mind off my delayed entrance.  This quotation was the first of many observations evidently taken from Mr. Sagmeister’s diary, and The Happy Show is organized around several of these thoughts.  (

The giant monkey balloons immediately made me think of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College graduation speech.  (

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

I wandered around the landing outside the entrance to the show, and I appreciated the Jonathan Haidt metaphor of the human brain as a small conscious rider on top of a huge unconscious elephant.  The rider cannot really force the elephant to do anything, but over time the rider can train the elephant to be influenced by what the rider wants to accomplish.  Mr. Sagmeister wants to see if he can train his mind in the same way he trained his nonathletic body to finish the New York marathon, and The Happy Show is documenting this mind training. 

Haidt’s metaphor of rider and elephant comes from his book The Happiness Hypothesis, which I had read when it first came out in 2006.  Michael Gazzaniga, when he came to Grand Rapids, Michigan to give an Autumn Health Forum lecture for me, told me to read Haidt who he greatly admires.  Haidt is best known for his describing work as job or career or calling:

·      If you see your work as a job, you do it only for the money, you look at the clock frequently while dreaming about the weekend ahead, and you probably pursue hobbies, which satisfy your effectance needs more thoroughly than does your work.

·       If you see your work as a career, you have larger goals of advancement, promotion, and prestige.

·      If you see your work as a calling, however, you find your work intrinsically fulfilling you are not doing it to achieve something else. You see your work as contributing to the greater good or as playing a role in some larger enterprise the worth of which seems obvious to you. You have frequent experiences of flow during the work day, and you neither look forward to “quitting time” nor feel the desire to shout, “Thank God it’s Friday!” You would continue to work, perhaps even without pay, if you suddenly became very wealthy. (

Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion has created a stir by claiming that conservatives and liberals differ in their support of the five fundamental moral values:  care for others, fairness and justice, loyalty to your family or nation, respect for tradition and authority, and purity or sanctity.  According to Haidt liberals put much more emphasis on care for others and fairness than conservatives who embrace all five moral values. 

Two more displays caught my eye on the landing outside the main entrance to The Happy Show.  One described three levels of happiness.  Level One short term happiness listed the words bliss, ecstasy, orgasm, and joy.  Level Two medium term happiness listed satisfaction and well-being.  Level three long term happiness was described as fulfilling one’s potential and understanding the reason why you are alive. 

On the handrail by the stairs leading into the entrance of the exhibit, I read that Sanskrit has 16 words for happiness and that German has none.  Does this mean that the Indians are happier than the Germans or does it mean that Indians are just better at talking about happiness?

In Part II of this blog we will enter Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Show and see how he trains his mind to be happy. 

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