A couple of years ago, I was involved in the communication around the TED talent search in Amsterdam. Part of TED’s search to have the best speakers, several candidates auditioned for a place at the stage of TED.
By far my favourite candidate was Max Zorn, a German-Dutch street artist. As an artist, he likes to be mysterious. He does few interviews. There are no pictures of him online. He typically wears sun glasses; during his talk he also wore a hat to be sure he remained incognito. Despite or maybe because of the mystery, he is one of my favourite artists – and the only one of which I personally own a work.
Max Zorn works with an uncommon material: brown packing tape.
He puts layers and layers of tape on each other, and the image becomes visible through the contrast between the different number of layers and the light that passes through to them. Light has to behind for it to be effective – see here the painting that hangs proudly in my room.
This is the image by day, without light (and with a bit of a mirror effect of the glass…). Nothing too exciting, right?
But this is the image by night, with the light on:
In my interpretation, the couple exchanges a look that can mean many different things. Every time I see the picture, I see another element, and come up with another possible story about what it means. Most of the times, I see connection and intimacy. But from time to time, it can also mean love, or lust, or disappointment, or submission, or a battle for power…
And all these emotions are expressed just with three materials – brown packing time, glass, and light.
One final image, also taken from the retro style that is very much present in his work (for more, check his website and his shop)
“I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities rather than made-up stories” – Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science, London School of Economics
In my posts about happiness I don’t only write about reality, sharing experiences from travels and other activities or knowledge from scientific research on how our happiness works. For me, writing about happiness also means writing about the imagined worlds of literature, arts, and movies.
Happiness in made-up stories
When I have the time, I like to read and let the stories bring me to new places and join the characters on their journey through life. I agree with Paul Dolan, quoted above, when he recommends an active life. It’s true that being active is one of the ways to well-being. But I also have a vivid imagination. Contrary to Dolan, I think that made-up stories can result in real experiences, such as a feel of calm, excitement, or even happiness.
Anybody who has ever enjoyed a novel or a movie would agree. There are a few movies that require us to use all our senses to grasp its meaning. For me, La Grande Bellezza, is one movie that is just like that.
I recently re-watched the story about Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo), at 65 years the king of the jet-set of Rome. He deserves his fame to a novel he wrote over 40 years ago. Currently, he passes his days at big parties, artistic gatherings, his rooftop terrace with hammock in front of the Colosseum, and altogether living a life of mundanity.
Jep in La Grande Bellezza.
La Grande Bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and Oscar winner in 2014, is a story about Rome, about art, and ultimately about (un)happiness. Since the beginning of philosophy, we have been looking for the answer to the question: ‘what is happiness’?. Traditionally, two answers have been dominant to that question: hedonism and meaning.
Let’s take hedonism, also known as utility or pleasure, first. This form is very much present in La Grande Bellezza. Objectively, Jep’s life is great: he attends the big parties and shows in town, he eats when he wants, sleeps with women when he wants. Jep describes the aim of his life in Rome as follows:
When I came to Rome at the age of 26, I fell pretty swiftly into what might be defined as the whirl of the high life, but I didn’t just want to live the high life, i wanted to be the king of the high life. I didn’t just want to attend parties, I wanted the power to make them fail.
The second answer to the question ‘what is happiness?’ is meaning. At the same time as being the king of the high life, Jep is an artistic soul, observing the silence, his sentiments, emotions, and his fears… As a journalist and writer, but also as an individual, he is interested in the misery of human beings.
I was destined to be sensitive. I was destined to write. I was destined to be Jep.
La Grande Bellezza is a movie from which you can extract different messages or meanings. For me, the story of Jep is one of a failure to find happiness in meaning. His artistic career kicked off with a bang over forty years ago, when the girl he loved inspired him to write a revolutionary piece of literature. But with the girl, also his ability to write these kind of novels is gone. With the meaning lost, he tries – and fails – to find happiness in hedonism.
The wisdom to enjoy our live
In a sense, Jep is the most tragic of characters in a tragic movie. At the same time, La Grande Bellezza is a story that beautifully grasps many concepts about the beauty of life. If beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our life, as I read as a comment to a YouTube video with part of the soundtrack, there is not so much beauty in La Grande Bellezza as it may seem at first.
Beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our live
This article was written by Jasper Bergink and Maroussia Klep and was first published in the fifth issue of Ionic Magazine (www.ionicmagazine.co.uk), a wonderful magazine that aims to bridge the gap between two seemingly distant disciplines: art and science. The artwork is by Maroussia Klep.
The manufacture of happiness
Have you ever desired to be in the place of this happy family on the cover of magazines, or to live the same passionate love story as that couple on a TV show? Our society – probably more than any other before – makes you feel the urge to “be happy”. At the same time, the trick of consumerism is to make happiness a never ending and unattainable quest.
How would you react if we told you that you actually have the capacity to manufacture your own happiness?
As Abraham Lincoln reportedly put it some 150 years ago, “people are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Since then, behavioural researchers have worked hard to put scientific terms on this observation. Dan Gilbert, a professor in psychology at Harvard University, distinguishes two terms to describe this phenomenon: natural and synthetic happiness. The first refers to happiness as we usually tend to picture it: the deep feeling of joy you experience when you finally get the job you wanted or date the person you are in love with. Synthetic happiness however is a feeling of happiness that you can unconsciously create, even when you do not get what you wanted. Remarkably, Gilbert claims that synthesised happiness makes you feel as good and is as long-lasting as the natural ‘version’.
This is all very appealing but it opens a new question: how can one attain or ‘manufacture’ this alternative state of happiness? As a matter of fact, it does not require any special trick. It lies actually at the heart of human nature and relies on the amazing capacity of every person to adapt to his environment. This holds both for changes in the physical world around us as in psychological terms. A famous study by Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman compared the happiness levels of three groups: lottery winners, paraplegics (as a result of an accident), and people who hadn’t won a lottery nor were disabled. Common sense would make one inclined to think that the lottery winners would have a higher level of happiness than the disabled. On the short term, this must be true. Brickman and his team realised however that this initial effect had completely gone within a year. As time passed, participants adapted to their new situation, with no measurable difference in their respective happiness levels one year after the win of the lottery or the accident.
Human nature is of course more complex. One of the main obstacles in today’s society, which hampers our ability to manufacture happiness through adaptation, is the abundance of choice to which one is confronted. Excessive freedom, and the availability of multiple alternatives, can act as a paralysing factor. The study of Barry Schwartz is enlightening in this regard to understand the ‘paradox of choice’. During his observations, participants in a supermarket were offered the opportunity to taste and purchase six jams. In another setup, the number of jams was 24. Unexpectedly, Schwartz realised that when the number of jams increased, the level of interest and of purchase decreased rather than increased.
Limit your options
From these observations it can be concluded that too much freedom can actually be detrimental to one’s level of happiness. When faced with a limited number of options, a person can more easily adapt to his or her limits and make the most out of what is available. In other words, it makes ‘synthesizing’ easier. This observation is certainly not an argument to set ambitions aside and be complacent. On the contrary, it is by identifying your own ambitions and striving to attain your personal objectives that you will attain the highest levels of satisfaction. There is no point in considering fifteen different careers that are not fit to you. This will only make you unhappy. Instead, the lesson learned here is to focus on what you want and to restrict your panel of possibilities to what could give you most satisfaction – then, whatever the result, synthetic happiness will do the rest!