Happiness... there is a word for it in every language, yet, what it is and how best to sustain it is a perennial puzzle. There is hardly a culture, religion or political platform that fails to mention it, while few have defined it in consistently satisfying terms.
“Six Things: Sagmeister and Walsh,” an installation at The Jewish Museum, is exuberant, multi-layered and fun. The show grew out of the designer Stefan Sagmeister’s ten-year investigation into the nature of happiness during his long creative sabbaticals. It suggests that we might start to feel better simply by opening up to the question.
Together with design partner Jessica Walsh, Sagmeister has distilled his quest down to six principles. While each of the six will surely bring benefits, it is not so much the wisdom of each dictum as the ingenious way that each is communicated that makes visitors smile. The seeds of happiness are planted in the abandon of translating dictums into whimsical imagery. Each of the installations contains enough mystery, paradox and lulling sound to recharge the happiness quest in the mind of each spectator.
Maxim number one is, “If I Don’t Ask, I Won’t Get.” Each word informs the frame of a two-minute video whose theme seems to be optimism and burst bubbles. The two blue balloons spelling the first word, “If,” are floated and instantly punctured in the sky. “I” is an inflated oval that melts into the ground and is resurrected in a transformed shape. “Don’t” features four people each blowing up a yellow balloon; all four balloons burst, presumably from over-inflation. The final word “get” is encased in three overhead red balloons that are punctured by a well-aimed arrow. But, wait, there’s a surprise... the burst balloons release a cascade of soothing water sensually caressing the unsuspecting people below.
Happiness is further buoyed, we learn, by keeping a dairy, increasing flexibility, realizing we cannot please everybody, upgrading empathy or “feel others feel” and being grateful that “now is better.” “Feel others feel” is actualized in a series of pans whose shapes spell out the motto while the water they contain is connected by sound waves for simultaneous vibration. “Now is better” is communicated by images of levitating sugar cubes and surging coffee.
This exhibit discourages facile assumptions. Excerpts from a recent survey, inscribed around the baseboards in Gothic type, inform us that Jews scored higher than any other group on the Well Being Index. What is more, “observant Jews are generally happier than non-observant Jews.” This is accounted for by religious Jews’ belief in a higher power, their sense of belonging and attention to acts of charity, all of which contribute to well being.
I pick up on inconsistencies here. Some of these happiness principles would require tweaking of conventional attitudes among the religious. “Be more flexible,” and “now is better” challenge a traditional way of life that derives much of its codified wisdom from an idealized past.
Upgrading happiness may not be without inherent contradictions. But “Six Things” suggests it can be thought-provoking and consistently fun.
Susan Reimer Torn, a writer who lives in New York City, blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com