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by Susan Reimer-Torn

Upper-West-Side2-300x225Happiness: There is a word for it in every language, yet what it is and how best to sustain it are perennial puzzles. There is hardly a culture, religion, or political platform that fails to mention happiness, but few have defined it in consistently satisfying terms. Six Things: Sagmeister and Walsh, an exhibit on view at the Jewish Museum until August 4th, suggests that we might start to feel better simply by opening up to the question in a new way.

The show grew out of the designer Stefan Sagmeister’s ten-year investigation into the nature of happiness during some long, creative sabbaticals. Together with design partner Jessica Walsh, Sagmeister has distilled his understanding down to six principles. It is not so much the wisdom of each dictum as the ingenious way that each is communicated that makes me smile.

For example, maxim number one is, “If I Don’t Ask, I Won’t Get.” Each word informs the frame of a beguiling two-minute video whose theme plays with optimism and burst bubbles. Two blue balloons spelling the first word,“If,” are floated and instantly punctured against an azure sky. “I” is an inflated oval that melts into the ground like jello 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.

Excerpts from a 2010 Gallup poll survey entitled the Health Ways Well Being Index are inscribed around the baseboards of the exhibit room in authoritative Gothic type. We are informed that Jews scored higher than any other group on the Well Being Index. What is more, we are told that, “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 their attention to acts of charity, all of which have been shown to contribute to well being.

It is challenging to juxtapose Sagmeister’s free-wheeling guidelines with the far less flexible worldview of observant Jews. Of the six happiness principles, at least three clash with what we think of as conventional attitudes among the religious. “Feel Others Feel” emphasizes empathy, a quality often lacking in the doctrinaire, while “Be More Flexible,” and “Now is Better” challenge a traditional way of life that derives much of its codified wisdom from an idealized past.

I, for one, have never bought into the more religious = more happiness equation. But this week, in the aftermath of a talk by Avivah Zornberg at the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side, I am more restive about it than ever.

 

Avivah Zornberg holds a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University and is the first biblical commentator to consistently integrate a quasi-subversive psychoanalytic dimension to traditional text study. Yet she wears a shaytl (wig) in conformity with ultra-Orthodox norms for women, and keeps a low profile in her Jerusalem community lest she upstage the male scholars.

After writing well-received books on Genesis and Exodus (wherein she excavates such provocative themes as desire, seduction and the biblical unconscious), Dr. Zornberg is now completing a hefty commentary on the Book of Numbers. In her recent talk, she explored the incident in Numbers 13 in which, prompted by ten of the twelve spies’ ambivalent report about the Promised Land, the recently liberated Jews express fear and doubt about continuing the journey. God reacts to their misgivings with typical rage, decreeing that this generation will wander forty years in the desert, die there, and never enter the land.

Zornberg inquires as to the real reason — beyond dismissing this God as a disappointed and punitive parent — that this generation cannot “go up” to the land. Parsing the language that the people use in response to the spies’ report, she refers to a psychological syndrome she calls the “core fantasy.” This has to do with how people can and cannot envision the future based on their past experience, and their resulting capacity for optimism.

While “the facts on the ground,” as communicated by the spies, might have inspired optimism or despair, this generation was limited by their slavery experience of oppression and impotence. They could only anticipate unhappy endings. The Divine decree therefore reflected their own psychic limitations.

 

This brings me back to the speech I heard a few weeks ago by Merav Michaeli, a 46-year old Israeli media star and feminist, embarking on a political career as a newly-elected Knesset delegate from the Labor Party. Speaking at B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, Michaeli criticized Israeli politicians, both on the right and on the left, for “always threatening the people with catastrophe.” The result of “constantly being frightened, rather than inspired by leaders” is a failure of the“Israeli imagination to freely or fully envision peace.” She, like Zornberg, is referring to the dangers of a pessimistic “core fantasy,” even if the secular politician is using different words and updating the syndrome to contemporary times.

Still, I wonder why Stefan Sagmeister highlights the high score of observant Jews on the well-being index on his exhibit’s baseboards. Rebbeca Shaykin, the exhibit’s curator, explained to me that this link “gives us permission to have his work here.” In other words, relating the non-Jewish Sagmeister’s subject to some sociological findings about Jews qualifies him for a show in this particular museum.

Could Sagmeister — or the curator — be unaware of the gap between the views of the religious and those so whimsically expressed by the designer? Curator Shaykin told me that it is a mistake to understand “observant” as Orthodox. Rather, as defined in this survey, “observant means people who go to services once a week, and consider religion to be an important part of life.” Fair enough, that closes the gap a little. At least it doesn’t imply that extremists whose core fantasies lead to an us-versus-them mentality are being touted for some insular version of happiness. What’s more, the study, I’m told, refers to American Jews whose sense of safety softens the paranoia that too often characterizes the core fantasy of their Israeli counterparts.

Perhaps Sagmeister’s lauding of Jewish happiness simply served to open the door of the Jewish Museum to him, but I like to think that he is hinting, in his installation, that happiness buoyed by over-inflated notions of our own centrality risks being burst by some freshly sharpened arrows.

 

Susan Reimer-Torn holds a Master’s degree in dance history from Columbia University and has written widely on dance, culture, lifestyle, and women’s issues for French and American publications. While living in Paris she had a regular cultural column in International Herald Tribune. She also published Kids Extra!, a quarterly serving the expatriate community. Susan has lived in New York for the past twelve years and works as a writer and a life coach.