Our west coast editor, Alex Gill, tells a touching personal story of facing her unhappiness at The Happy Show, a new art show in Vancouver.
The day started off shitty and only got worse. I was late filing a story, which means I didn’t have time to cycle to the Museum of Vancouver to meet curatorial director Gregory Dreicer before viewing Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Show, running now until September 7.
So I end up calling a cab, which I can scarcely afford given the bills piling up and all the outstanding paycheques. I just lost a lucrative contract thanks to an unforeseen conflict of interest, my mom is giving me the silent treatment and seasonal allergies are wearing me down. I’m not just unhappy; I feel lonely, out of shape, overworked, underpaid and seriously depressed.
What better day to wander through a sprawling museum exhibit created by a rock-star graphic designer who spent 10 years trying to crack that hoary old chestnut we call happiness?
“Are you really unhappy?” Dreicer asks gently.
“Yes,” I say, laughing. Because what else can you do when the world is spitting on your face?
At least I’m not the only one. According to a recent survey from Statistics Canada, Vancouver is the unhappiest city in the country. The report was released two days before the exhibit launched with the Happiness Symposium, one of many ancillary community events that include happy-themed discussions around politics, environmental sustainability, social psychology, bravery and beer. The latter, entitled Happy Hours, is being held on May 28 to celebrate the city’s overlapping Bike to Work Week and Vancouver Craft Beer Week. (Damn, I knew biking here would have put me in a better mood.)
Dreicer lets me down softly. He points to Sagmeister’s handwritten advisory, scrawled on a yellow wall next to the entrance: “This exhibition will not make you happier.” Typical, I can’t even catch a break at The Happy Show.
Of course, Sagmeister wrote that warning in order to lower visitor expectations because, in his experience: “Low expectations are a good strategy.”
This is one of 10 maxims around which the exhibit is organized. Sagmeister, an Austrian-born, New York-based graphic designer known for his Rolling Stones album covers, edgy HBO ad campaigns and popular TED Talks, doesn’t offer the maxims as truths, but rather as strategic thought-processes that worked for him and might well work for others.
The intensely personal show, which premiered at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2012, uses infographics, video projections, interactive installations and a six meter-high inflatable gorilla to ponder the impact of religion, money, marriage, kids, sex, meditation, cognitive therapy and mood-altering pharmaceuticals on happiness. Sagmeister spent 10 years studying the subject to try to get a handle on his own struggles with alcohol, drugs, weight gain and depression.
Well, he sounds like a kindred spirit. And since he pretty much cherry-picked through mountains of academic research to come up with his own self-tailored conclusions, I enter the exhibit determined to do the same.
The first thing that hits me is the music: a sorrowful, banjo-plucking, drum-brushing song about a heartbreak that will never heal by Vancouver band Siskiyou. I burst into uncontrollable tears. Good lord, can I just slit my wrists now and get it over with?
“How happy are you?” asks the sign next to a row of giant gumball machines, numbered one to 10. Maybe this was a bad idea.
Some statistics on the next wall cheer me up a bit.
As a single woman, I’m probably not as happy as the average married woman (25.5 per cent versus 41.5 per cent). But I’m a whole lot happier than most divorced woman (15.5 per cent), so for that I can be thankful.
I don’t have any. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. “Mothers often cite their kids as the biggest source of joy in their lives,” Sagmeister has written on the wall. “But if you look at a study of working women in the U.S., a very different picture emerged. When participants were asked at irregular intervals to write down what they are doing right now and how they are feeling while doing it, sex came in first, socializing second, child rearing wound up way down, somewhere in between doing the dishes and cleaning the toilet.” Did you hear that, Mom?
There is a difference between passionate and companionate love, according to research psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Passionate love is stronger than companionate love, but it only lasts half a year. “When I was younger,” Sagmeister writes, “I thought true love is passionate love that never fades and I was wrong. In fact, it is biologically impossible.” Sure, but six months of hot-and-heavy bliss sounds a whole lot better than nothing.
Self Confidence Produces Fine Results
Not always true. Sometimes, I’m overconfident and then deeply disappointed when things don’t work out.
Trying to Look Good Limits My Life
Yes, but didn’t he just say that exercise works better than meditation? And exercise has the added bonus of making you look good. Oh, he’s referring to confrontation avoidance. I don’t have that problem. Next.
Everybody Always Thinks They Are Right
Money Does Not Make Me Happy
That’s easy for him to say. He earns enough money to take a yearlong sabbatical every seven years.
Drugs are Fun In The Beginning But Become A Drag Later On; Having Guts Always Works Out For Me; Keeping A Diary Supports Personal Development
I wind through the rest of the exhibit catching virtual cobwebs in my hand, lighting up an installation with a toothy-faced smile and eating Sagmeister’s favourite ginger candies. I watch videos of him meditating in Bali, asking strange women for their phone numbers and performing other entertaining acts that take him outside his comfort zone (which appears to be the guy’s biggest hang up).
I walk into the last room and climb onto a stationary bicycle. That heartbreaking song is playing again. My pedalling powers up a wall of neon lights that read: Seek Discomfort.
The broken lights are flickering. The bicycle gears are clanking. The music is haunting. My hot tears are flowing. Discomfort seeps out of every pore. I look down at a smaller hand-painted message in front of the bike and sigh.
Go through life slowly otherwise you’ll arrive at death too fast.
Pedal slowly and steadily.
Do not fall off.
Thank you. I won’t.
How happy are you? What defines your happiness? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.