Deconstructing the pursuit of happiness with Happy House

"Is there happiness in pursuing happiness today?", reads the description for the exhibition titled 'Happy House' at Singapore Art Week 2022.

If you ask us, we're definitely curious to know the answer. Singapore, like many other cities around the world, seems like a place where material or career success may be seen as a route to happiness. At the same time, our own experience points to simpler things, like having friends to hang out with, or being in nature.

We might be doing alright, though. In a Gallup study, individuals who live in cities were found to have slightly higher levels of happiness than those living in rural areas, regardless of income level.

...when everyone living in a society can meet their needs, we all benefit because everyone we are connected with—family, friends, co-workers and neighbours—will enjoy better health, are better cared for and educated, are less stressed, and more motivated.
—Teo You Yenn, via Rice Media

Happiness can feel elusive for many of us. In meditation, you're taught that it is something you can naturally access. It's already there within us, but it might be buried under our thoughts and emotions. Some of us might even experience a sense of unease, or even fear, around happiness, according to research by psychiatrist Paul Gilbert.

A few decades ago, scientists presented the idea that people had a set happiness index, suggesting that some people are genetically disposed to be happy, while others are prone to feel the opposite. In a 1978 study, lottery winners were found to revert back to the same level of happiness as people with spinal cord injuries. Thankfully, today, it's been found that we can still rewire the brain and alter our set point, also known as a process of neuroplasticity.

"It is not a privilege to be happy. When we experience happiness, we are not taking it away from someone else. Happiness is the natural state of our minds, as it holds space for all the material of our minds and our experiences, both the comfortable experiences as well as the uncomfortable ones, and everything in between."
—Lama Rod Owens

So, what's your take on happiness? Ponder this at Happy House, an art project that contemplate hacks for happiness via multimedia works. Presented and produced by Tulika Ahuja and Eileen Chan, Happy House invites visitors to consider what the H-word really means to them.

We invited Eileen for a Q&A about the project. Eileen is a regular floater and also the founder of The Council, an underground techno movement in Singapore. She shares how the pandemic sparked unexpected change for her when nightlife disappeared overnight, and how it led to a newfound fascination with the question of happiness.

What inspired Happy House?

E: Happy House was born out of a desire to hack my own happiness. The pandemic was a really rough time for a lot of us, but losing the ability to continue doing what I love – which was creating experiences and sharing music with people on the dancefloor – that really did a number on me mentally and emotionally. The mandated closure of the nightclubs in Singapore left a huge void in my life... and Happy House was my response to wanting to find a new voice, a new creative outlet, and a new way to engage with the community again.

Happy House has been buying happiness, paying $1 for happy memories from strangers. Is there anything interesting you've learnt/realised from the submissions so far?

E: This initiative has been a really interesting journey so far, and I'm enjoying the conversations I'm having with people who are sending in their contributions. One common response is the joy that people have found in the simple act of just going through their memories, which was something I felt when I was looking through my own. There are definitely some patterns that have emerged... but we'll be sharing more about them when this first chapter of Happy House concludes :)

Do you think your fellow Singaporeans are happy? Why or why not?

E: I think our nation has a complicated relationship with happiness, much of which stems from some of the prescribed notions that we've been brought up with in the past. I think the current state of the world has a lot more people questioning their own happiness, Singaporeans included. It's hard for me to say if my fellow Singaporeans are happy or not, but I hope we can begin to understand that happiness is going to look different to each of us.

So the stats say it costs $5k a month to be happy in Singapore. Is that your personal experience? What do you make of that?  

E: It's actually quite funny that the stats say that, because when I was in school... I had told myself I'd need to have a job with a $5000 salary by the time I turn 25. When that age came and went and I didn't meet my own goal, I was quite disappointed with myself. But over the years, I started to realise that money is a tool. It is not a source of happiness, but it can allow me to do things that would make me happy. And the things that made me the happiest was being able to create experiences that can be shared, experiences that would live on in someone's memories for a long time.

Has happy changed for you amidst the pandemic? Why or why not?

E: It's taken a new form amidst the pandemic, as I learn to appreciate a slower pace in life. Pre-pandemic, I never really thought about my own happiness... because I was constantly in an abundance of joy. Being able to do what I love made me very happy. I don't think that will ever change, even though my current creative output may look vastly different to what I did before. But the one constant in what my 'happy' looks like – it's the community that I have and cherish.

What's your happy place?

E: Do I have to pick just one? I have 3, actually.

1. In the DJ booth

2. In the kitchen cooking a meal for my loved ones

3. In my sanctuary & my safe space that is right inside the float tank :)

Visit Happy House at Singapore Art Week, 14-23 January 2022.

11am to 8pm daily | Tanjong Pagar Distripark, 39 Keppel Road, #05-04