The Art of Happiness

I happened upon Hyperallergic’s review of Stefan Sagmeister’s art exhibition: “The Happy Show” at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.   It’s a rich piece on the nature of art (as opposed to design) and Sagmeister’s vision of happiness:

Although the writer, Dahlia Schweitzer, initially focuses on the artist’s theme and style, she eventually explores the question at the center of the exhibition:  “What does it take to be happy?”   

In conversation with the show, she writes:

“Happiness … comes from an acceptance and appreciation of things exactly as they are right now — even if/when we wish things were different. The decision to be happy must be followed with not only an awareness of what things make one happy, but also the patience and persistence to then follow through. The decision to be happy must, perhaps most radically of all, be acknowledged as a decision. As a choice. Not as a random state of internal Zen, or as a guarantee afforded with the right purchase.”

I agree that happiness involves a delicate balance of acceptance and change; yet, to primarily achieve this by lowering expectations seems a sad path to contentment.  What about adding more positive experiences to your life?   

That’s what the psychologist, Barbara Frederickson, argues in her book, Positivity.  Her ideas leapfrog the simplistic: “Don’t worry; be happy,” and rather than advising individuals to deny their negative experiences, she recommends that they instead focus on fostering the natural goodness in their lives. 

Based on extensive research, Dr. Frederickson has found that there are ten different types of positive emotions that promote individual resiliency and happiness.  The key is establishing a ratio of at least three positives for every one negative.  The more stress a person experiences, the more important it is to seek out experiences which promote transformative emotions.  So what are we talking about exactly?  These are the ten feelings we want: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.   Most are obvious.  If you enjoy dancing, then dance more frequently when you’re unhappy.  That will give you joy. 

If your job has reached a frenetic pace, take time to drink tea or meditate (serenity).  Then download your favorite comedic film (amusement), and sign up for a class on a topic that’s always intrigued you (interest).   However simple this recipe seems, it isn’t.  It requires self-awareness and the willingness to sometimes push yourself.  Still, you can rearrange your life to naturally include these experiences so that they buffer you against the negative life events that are sure to happen at some point. In the end, you may still need to revise your definition of the “complete life,” but so too, you can revisit what it takes to make you happy.  Maybe it’s as simple as sitting in a garden watching butterflies or helping a friend complete a house project.  No doubt, these are easier to attain than any other fantasy you have of happiness.

(For more information about Barbara Frederickson and Positivity, click on this link: