On the Subject of Happiness

When thinking about success, it’s easy to segue into the subject of happiness or even to confuse the two. The bottom line for either may be the same for both; IE, when I become successful I will be happy. Or when I am happy I will be successful.

When thinking about happiness, however, I can’t help but wonder if it is a matter of psychology. Is there such a thing as happiness or are there only phenomena which disrupt our sense of normalcy and thus make us feel not so happy.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself… But I feel like I’m going through or I’ve been going through withdrawal of a very addictive drug. Dare I say… ego…

I don’t want to reduce my creative endeavors to a form of escapism, a way to distract myself, because the work is good in itself.

But what does that mean?

What is good work?

II

What do I want to get out of my work?

I like learning new things, namely things that are visually pleasing. I like learning how to appreciate new ideas. I like learning how to think the way others thought, especially if it helps me create something of my own.

This happens to calm me down because it brings me to a state of mind in which I am free to think.

[While trying not to reduce this to some state of mind, it occurs to me that… Being free to think is more than a state of mind.]

It is a state of being.1

Moreover, when the work leads one to create something there’s a product to share with others. It’s a form of communication and it fosters community.

There’s a free flow of thoughts and ideas.

We — humans — like to collect things as well, especially as a way to appreciate humanity as a whole.

But isn’t that part of the problem?

My head is filled with big ideas that were created by other people…

III

When trying to think about what is “good” or what is real, it’s easy to take a philosophical approach.

The first step is to inquire in a more practical way what is true at least for myself and what has been false.

Getting back to psychology

Maybe I’m looking for something to believe in. Something upon which I can begin building a foundation of some sense of self… as a person who creates…

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1 Feeling is responding, IE to an idea, as opposed to thinking, when one is the agent of that action and thinking or speaking by one’s own volition.

But when do the ideas learned from others become one’s own? When is it okay to believe in those ideas? It’s only healthy to be skeptical.

However, too much skepticism can make it feel like things are always shifting?

Maybe it comes down to my doubting myself or the choices I make.

Maybe it comes down to doing more than dipping my toes in the water to see if it’s to my liking.

It comes down to doing the work to know and fully appreciate what’s out there.

Books and Influences

I’ve been thinking about my influences lately and I realized I may be stuck in that advent of modern art sweet spot, in which artists were enthralled by the idea of finding a subject’s essence.1 

When we talk about an abstract of a long academic paper, we mean something that is composed of the main points of the actual paper. When Picasso deconstructed the image of a bull, he was leaving only the main points that without anything else could still represent the idea of a bull. When we think of abstract art today, I think we’ve gone beyond this; even though, at the same time, it is what we have always been doing when creating abstract art.

When we recreate what we see, it is in the fashion of what one sees. When an artist can acknowledge this, she can be guided by more than the idea of a given object. When she sees a vase, for example, she might not just see a vase but something about that vase, and it is that something that she can try to convey.

It could be a mood or an indefinable quality like charisma or elegance. It could be “pretty” without anyone being able to explain why.

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While in school, I would love browsing the library and found myself returning to a specific aisle in the book stacks and introducing myself to Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso and Van Gogh. I knew that what I was looking for would not be found in The Impressionists and in hindsight I think I was looking for structure and good line work.

I would later find out that many of the artists from the 1920s were influenced by Japanese art prints.

When I look at Hiroshige’s abstractions of human figures, birds and flowers, I think Hiroshige was trying to convey not a mood or quality that stood outside the idea of an object. He looked instead at the lines themselves. When looking at a flower, for example, it is like looking at the design of that flower. The line work is very purposeful and neat. It is also meant to be seen. Each piece within an object is like a building block that helps compose an overall idea.

There’s a balance. It’s almost mathematical.

Sketch of flower from Horikiri no hanashobu by Hiroshige3

When I look at the flower above, I don’t imagine it toppling. It looks poised. It maintains what Klee might describe as a “balance of proportions,” which he discusses in the second section of his Pedagogical Sketchbook, II Dimension and Balance. There’s a great line from the next section2 and that is “To stand despite all possibilities to fall.”

I marvel at the flower because it is supported not just at the base but by the imagined weight of the leaves and the relative sizes of its parts. Each part, moreover, is outlined in black ink and highlighted as an individual piece with its own qualities of line and flow, which in turn follow a path that responds to and influences the disposition of its surrounding pieces.

In words this sounds complicated but in appearance it’s very simple. Or it’s very simple for an audience to see everything at play, all at once. It may not have been so simple to compose the flower to begin with.

When drawing this flower in my sketchbook, I was always tempted to draw the lines longer than they were so as to accentuate the flow of the line, but doing so disrupted the balance of proportions. So I had to redraw and shorten the line while maintaining the flow of the line.

I believe the art of Hiroshige’s drawings are in this balance: maintaining the qualities of multiple aspects — line, form, balance of proportions and color — while creating a scene a viewer can take in all at once.

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1 I’ve written about this before and spent some time arguing how one may be inherently biased, the essence of a subject may not exist and therefore whatever we might believe is the essence of anything may only be something one imagines.

2 Section III Motion and gravitational curve

3 Melanie Trede, et al. One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Taschen, 2015

On the Subject of Success

I

It’s a question of how you want to spend your time. Which is a big question.

In my head I see the idolization of icons who worked tirelessly day and night year after year. But, to put this in modern terms, this doesn’t look like a healthy work-life balance.

Everyday there will be a choice. Maybe you really do want every morning to be a slow morning. What if every morning was a slow morning in which you could watch the sun rise and smell the coffee brewing, the aromas of a warm breakfast being cooked on the stove? Could you be content with that choice if it meant you chose not to do other things instead?

Ok, maybe this would be an easy choice, but given “the rest of life,” it doesn’t feel like there’s a choice because how you spend your mornings involve responsibilities that, if not fulfilled, can make you and others very unhappy.

Maybe you have a family to feed. Maybe you have chores to complete. Maybe you live in a commune. Maybe I’m not clear on who my audience is. 

Either way, it’s likely you had the question of how you spend your time answered for you as a child, while as an adult, you might wake up one morning realizing you had yet to answer such a basic but all-encompassing question.

How do you want to spend your time (given the time that has not already been allotted to something else)… ?

II

It’s a matter of perspective.

We’ve seen a wealth of biopics looking into the lives of great men and women, and for the audience, there is the task of sussing out the legacy from the life.

Each person has a unique mind and psychology. What makes one person happy might not make another happy. Or how one spends one’s time might not have been for the sake of happiness.

Or, looking at modern times, maybe we are not seeking happiness anymore because it’s too evasive of an idea. Maybe we are content with chasing a feeling. Maybe it’s all a matter of psychology.

What if it’s become a matter of idolatry or idealization of one’s life. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves through the lens of social media. We look at somebody else’s legacy and draw comparisons to our own lives. We might even be fully aware that part of one’s audience is oneself.

Yes these stories can be comforting or just a bit of fun. But it creates an interface between oneself and the idea of one’s life.

Even though life is not a mere idea.

III

It’s not a matter of discipline.

Or discipline is an approach but not the end goal. Of course there are exceptions. You might want the discipline as apart of how you see yourself. Discipline in this case would be an idea.

It could also be an integral part of getting to the end goal. It could be your approach to achieving some meditative state. For many it is difficult to achieve a meditative state without first carrying on an activity that leads one there.

Maybe, for some, this is success. The work itself. Or achieving some state of mind.

But this brings me back to that first question. How do I want to spend my time? Is the work itself enough?

Or am I looking for a payoff… any payoff just to stay motivated … because the dream of that ephemeral idea of success is such a great idea. What drives me to do the work really? Do I only want to feel like I am on the path toward achieving something bigger and greater than myself?

Is it only a matter of ambition and obsession?

Looking back in hindsight, I can (fortunately) say that these two elements of my psyche have lessened and I am looking for value in the end goal.

I am looking for something that is more than an idea.