I’m not sure why I wrote this the other day, but I did, and I missed the IdeasTap Columnist competition so here it is. It also completely trails off at the end so it’s probably a good thing that I missed the deadline. But here: happiness, some accidental indulgent self-analysis, and a bit of art chat.
We artists are a grumpy bunch, but things will all work out in the end if we just smile, and don’t cut our ears off either.
Today began with a TED Talk: Happiness ‘expert’ Dan Gilbert on synthesising the one emotion that we treat as an item, a commodity to be had. Happiness has become the ultimate Thing in our materialistic society, and we accumulate other things in the hope that the sum of these equals utter unbounded happiness.
However, as Gilbert affirms, happiness cannot be sought and accrued as it is (not too sound too new age) a state of mind: how we regard what we have. These are not only the items that we have, but family, friends, our talents; elements which we are fully aware that we take for granted – when reminded of them replying with “yes, but I’m not successful”, “yes, but it doesn’t matter”, “yes, but…”
This may sound like a sweeping statement, but during a recent bout of CBT (I’m a hypochondriac, always have been) I began to look into this dismissive attitude and found that it is widely true for young creatives – a genre which encompasses most of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances. This “yes, but…” attitude is so very damaging as it cannot be opened up to the good, as it already recognises and immediately disregards it.
Gilbert talks about synthesised and true happiness: the first is a result of instructing ourselves to enjoy life; the second is the result of achieving the ultimate goals that we believe will give us happiness. True happiness is seen as The Thing, whereas synthesised happiness is simply a meagre replacement for this. However, as true happiness is measured by success – an immeasurable and entirely subjective idea – perhaps synthesised happiness, forcing ourselves to be content, is actually The Thing as it is both realistic and achievable.
Unfortunately, young creatives are not a much of a realistic breed. Most of the young artists seen at private views flouncing about in their Barbour jackets and Toms or heavy heels and impractical headwear, have at some point had a destructive seed planted in their mind: you can have success, and you can have it now. The comments which water this seed will have been made with supportive intentions, but they can inadvertently set expectations.
So if ‘true’ happiness is the result of achieving your goals, does this mean that many of us – perhaps artists in particular – are doomed to a life of misery?
Of course not: happiness can be something intangible that we wait to materialize when that piece of work sells, a particular paper publishes an article, or that gallery commissions a show, or instead it can be something we construct, force even. Every emotion has a cause; our society is saturated with professionals whose job is to identify exactly what makes us sad, so why not instead seek out exactly what can make us happy? Of course this varies slightly as we are all wired up differently, but only to a point.
One of the oldest theories of happiness is Maslow’s Pyramid: a five tier hierarchy of human needs, which should result in happiness when fulfilled in the allocated order. First are physiological needs such as food and water; next comes safety; third is belonging; fourth is esteem; and the final tip, the icing on the cake, is self-actualisation: that imagined success, The Thing.
Maslow’s pyramid is just a theory, but when put into practice reveals why us artists can be such a discontented crowd: we’re trying to climb straight to the top without even laying down the first few bricks; squeezing icing straight onto the table without baking the cake first (which itself alone is a tragedy).
Gilbert and Maslow’s theories are not similar: Gilbert identifies an easily achievable version of happiness, whilst Maslow explains how we become satisfied. However what both scientists do is bring the idea of happiness down from its pedestal and convert it into something concrete, discussing happiness as it is: a physiological state which has a set of definite causes. If we stop fantasising about how happy we could be, stop the “yes, buts”, and instead look objectively at what we have – which for most of us at least includes two rows of Maslow breeze blocks – then maybe we will find that we already have The Thing.