Happy talk can just stick it


Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bukutgirl/CC BY-NC 2.0

That happiness and personal satisfaction would be two of the most sought after human experiences won't surprise anyone. But that these all-too-elusive qualities are being actively explored in a range of disciplines, from game design to psychology to economics, might.

For example, 2008 IdeaFestival presenter and game designer Jane McGonigal memorably described games of all types as "happiness engines," and suggested in her presentation and follow-up IF Conversation that rather than using the quality of suspended time to escape reality, it might be used, rather, to create a better one. I'm all for that.

Having heard my Zelda-crazed third-grader say he'd like become a magician and, more recently, a game designer, a better reality has one bumptious ally.  Culture will level-up if he has any say in the matter.

Like games, taking in the visual and performing arts offer us the opportunity to momentarily lose ourselves in a beneficial, internal dialog.

Attending the IdeaFestival - discounted Early Bird All-Access Passes are on sale through Sunday, and single tickets for all the presenters except Janelle Monae are on sale now - I'd invite you to take in the Simen Johan installation, "Until Till Kingdom Comes," at the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville. Exploring themes of order and finality, ideas that have preoccupied humans since we created alphabets to give meaning to our breath, Johan, rather than being critical of a longing for ultimate justice - though that may well be among his points - is also affirming through some the most drama-filled imagery you will ever see the importance of now.

And it's the now that mesmerizes philosophers of mind, who long ago recognized that "the problem of experience" is a singular one. There is "something that it is to be like" the sight of guacamole or the thrill of reuniting with your lover that is ineluctable. In the abstract, you might have the greatest appreciation for it in the world, but in one oft-repeated example, the color red can't be fully understood apart from emerging from Mary's room and seeing it.

David Chalmers, please come to the IdeaFestival!

One man thinks it's our "red-deprived" memories, in a sense, that determine our future happiness.

In the linked TED video, Nobel Laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out that "we think of the future as anticipated memories," and describes two other "cognitive traps" - a "reluctance to admit complexity" and "the focusing illusion" - that give happiness the bum's rush while we do important things. What he and others are discovering is that "it's two very different things" to be happy about your life and happy in your life. And going all Sybil on us, he describes how our remembering and decision-making self can, sadly, drag our experiencing-self through new experiences that it would never choose were it not leaning so heavily on the past.

Past may be prologue. It can be left behind.