Saturday, July 29, 2006

The brand called me.

A continuation of the transition from gene to meme as the mechanism of self-actualization. Why should I procreate when I can broadcast and retail?

The other part of the story is that the value of brands that represent business conglomerates (as opposed to individuals) will continue to decline. Would you be more likely to trust someone as opposed to something?


July 30, 2006
The Brand Underground

Aaron Bondaroff is 29, part Puerto Rican, part Jewish, Brooklyn-born and a high-school dropout. His life weaves through the most elusive subcultures of lower Manhattan. A-Ron, as he is also known, is one of those individuals who embodies a scene. “I’m so downtown,” Bondaroff is fond of saying, “I don’t go above Delancey.”

Even so, he longs for something bigger, like the cultural noise made by the Beats in the 1950’s or Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 1960’s or the bands and fans who clustered around CBGB’s in the 1970’s. He wants to “make history” and join “the time line” of New York. He is not an artist, an author, a designer, musician, filmmaker or even a famous skateboarder or graffiti writer. So in another era, Bondaroff might have had to settle for his cameos in some of the acclaimed images of youthful outsider debauchery captured by his photographer friend Ryan McGinley. He could be, in other words, a counterculture muse, like Neal Cassady or Edie Sedgwick.

In our present era, however, he may not have to settle. There’s a new alternative, one that’s neatly summed up in a question that A-Ron has been asking himself lately: “How do I turn my lifestyle into a business?”

The answer he came up with is worth paying attention to because it speaks to a significant but little-noted development in contemporary culture. Young people have always found fresh ways to rebel, express individuality or form subculture communities through cultural expression: new art, new music, new literature, new films, new forms of leisure or even whole new media forms. A-Ron’s preferred form of expression, however, is none of those things. When he talks about his chosen medium, which he calls aNYthing, it sounds as if he’s talking about an artists’ collective, indie film production company, a zine or a punk band. But in fact, aNYthing is a brand. A-Ron puts his brand on T-shirts and hats and other items, which he sells in his own store, among other places. He sees it as fundamentally of a piece with the projects and creations of his anti-mainstream heroes.

This might seem strange, since most of us think of branding as a thoroughly mainstream practice: huge companies buying advertising time during the Super Bowl to shout their trademarked names at us is pretty much the opposite of authentic or edgy expression. But branding is more complicated than that. It is really a process of attaching an idea to a product. Decades ago that idea might have been strictly utilitarian: trustworthy, effective, a bargain. Over time, the ideas attached to products have become more elaborate, ambitious and even emotional. This is why, for example, current branding campaigns for beer or fast food often seem to be making some sort of statement about the nature of contemporary manhood. If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people — consciously or not — to consume the idea by consuming the product. Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand.

Of course, companies don’t go into business in order to express a particular worldview and then gin up a product to make their point. Corporate branding is a function of the profit motive: companies have stuff to sell and hire experts to create the most compelling set of meanings to achieve that goal. A keen awareness of and cynicism toward this core fact of commercial persuasion — and the absurd lengths that corporations will go to in the effort to infuse their goods with, say, rebelliousness or youthful cool — is precisely the thing that is supposed to define the modern consumer. We all know that corporate branding is fundamentally a hustle. And guys like A-Ron are supposed to know that better than anybody.

Which is why the supposed counterculture nature of his brand might arouse some suspicion. Manufactured commodities are an artistic medium? Branding is a form of personal expression? Indie businesses are a means of dropping out? Turning your lifestyle into a business is rebellious?

And yet thousands and thousands of young people who are turned off by the world of shopping malls and Wal-Marts and who can’t bear the thought of a 9-to-5 job are pursuing a path similar to A-Ron’s. Some design furniture and housewares or leverage do-it-yourself-craft skills into businesses or simply convert their consumer taste into blog-enabled trend-spotting careers. Some make toys, paint sneakers or open gallerylike boutiques that specialize in the offerings of product-artists. Many of them clearly see what they are doing as not only noncorporate but also somehow anticorporate: making statements against the materialistic mainstream — but doing it with different forms of materialism. In other words, they see products and brands as viable forms of creative expression.

Through aNYthing, A-Ron sees himself as part of a “movement,” a brand underground. And maybe there is something going on here that can’t simply be dismissed just because of the apparent disconnect between the idea of a “brand” and the idea of an “underground.” After all, subcultures aren’t defined by outsiders passing judgment; they are defined by participants.

To try to understand this phenomenon and how it might play out, I sought a test-case category in which I could compare the experiences of several upstarts over time. The T-shirt, a simple commodity, seemed an ideal vessel. While some indie products are handmade, many more are, like T-shirts, manufactured goods that attract consumers largely through branding. Even with this single product as a framework, the variety is dizzying. Some T-shirt branders target high-end consumers, some are attached to the curious world of sneaker collecting and some are harder to categorize. Like A-Ron’s brand.

Bondaroff dropped out of high school at age 15 to spend more time partying, getting into trouble and hanging out with the people who were worth hanging out with. He ended up getting a job in Lower Manhattan at the Supreme store. Theoretically a skateboard brand, Supreme was really an attitude brand, and the store had a reputation as a place where clerks would insult you to your face if you weren’t cool enough. A-Ron was not only cool enough, he was photographed for Supreme ads and became its “unofficial face.” He offered his opinions about what would make the photo shoot work better or which underground artists the brand should work with. Supreme caught on in Japan, and by the time Bondaroff was 21, he was visiting Tokyo and getting asked for autographs by kids who had seen his picture in magazines. “I was always bugged out by that — people are like, ‘Oh, you’re that guy,”’ he told me not long ago. “You get famous for nothing.”

While still basically working a retail job, he was also becoming the cool guy who is flown to Australia to sit on a trend-setter panel or whose elaborate birthday party is underwritten by Nike. He was figuring out that he had the option of becoming, in effect, a corporate muse. But he concluded that there was no reason to rent his coolness and knowingness to other companies. The point of aNYthing was to turn his lifestyle into his own business.

He devised his brand not long after Sept. 11, 2001, and it is deeply tied to his love for New York City and his own status on the current downtown scene. The “NY” in the logo resembles that of the New York Giants football team, and aNYthing designs often blend familiar New York iconography (from The New York Post nameplate to Lotto signs) with the brand’s name. His boutique opened last year on Hester Street on the lower Lower East Side.

One reason an underground brand sounds nonsensical is that countercultures are supposed to oppose the mainstream, and nothing is more mainstream than consumerism. But we no longer live in a world of the Mainstream and the Counterculture. We live in a world of multiple mainstreams and countless counter-, sub- and counter-sub-cultures. Bondaroff’s brand is built on both the sort of microfame that such a finely cut cultural landscape enables and on his absolutely exquisite ability to analyze that landscape. He knows that he is seen by the various trend-hunters or Japanese magazine editors or marketing types who hit him up for the latest news as a professional Cool Guy. He recognizes that taste is his skill.

He and his friends have even turned downtown demographics into a kind of parlor game: there are Cool Guys and the Art-Damaged crowd, the Parent Haters, the Dropouts and so on. “I like to label all the different scenes,” he says. “I coin the phrase, and people use it, and it goes back to me.” In fact, he has a related set of T-shirts coming out in the fall. He called up his friend Futura, the veteran graffiti artist, and asked him to write “Cool Guys”; that will be one of the shirts. “I’m exposing everybody,” Bondaroff says, and includes himself in the critique. (“I’m definitely a Cool Guy — the top Cool Guy on the scene,” he said. “I’ll say it loud and proud.”) This is the quintessence of the postmodern brand rebel, hopscotching the minefield of creativity and commerce, recognizing the categorization, satirizing it, embracing it and commoditizing it all at once.

If A-Ron and his crew are the ideological descendants of the scenesters who clustered around Warhol in the Factory period or hung out at CB’s in its heyday, then perhaps they’re trying a new tactic in the eternal war against the corporate suits who co-opt the rebellion, style and taste of every youth culture and sell it right back to the generation that created it. Perhaps the first lesson of the brand underground is not that savvy young people will stop buying symbols of rebellion. It is that they have figured out that they can sell those symbols, too.

Daniel Casarella represents a second iteration of the brand underground. At 28, he is a young man who has something to say. Several years ago, he became fascinated with the gritty, turn-of-the-century New York underworld described in Luc Sante’s book on the era, “Low Life.” His brother, Michael, who is 23, was writing his college thesis about 19th-century New York literature, and the Casarellas came to believe that the depths of the forgotten past offered an intellectual antidote to the superficial, surface-driven present. The first time we met, in early 2005, Casarella told me the story of the Collect Pond in lower Manhattan: drained because of pollution in the early 1800’s, it was filled in and became the brutal Five Points slum. “My brother and I have this theory of the Collect being the original sin of Manhattan,” he said, launching into a riff on man’s betrayal of nature and its consequences.

He wanted to get these ideas across to others, but instead of writing a novel or making a series of paintings, he started making T-shirts. He learned screen printing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but never considered actually joining the industry to work long hours for somebody else. Instead, in 2003, he founded Barking Irons — the name is 19th-century slang for pistols — a line of T-shirts with stark but intricate graphics that looked like old woodcuts, paired with mysterious phrases that refer back to the secret history of New York. One was inspired by the Collect Pond and another by a Washington Irving story. After he had printed some of his first designs, Casarella dropped off samples at Barneys in a paper bag.

A pricey department store doesn’t seem a likely place for expressing ideas, but the store’s buyer called him the next day. It turns out “new ideas” are exactly what the company was hungry for, according to Wanda Colon, a Barneys vice president. Its “young minded” Co-op spinoff stores cater to consumers who seek self-expression specifically through nonmainstream brands, like Gilded Age or Imitation of Christ, she said. Barking Irons got attention in the fashion trade press and on blogs like — and from an apparel distributor called Triluxe. A Triluxe executive told me that what the Barking Irons brand had going for it was “point of view.” Adam Beltzman, the owner of a Chicago store called Haberdash — one of many boutiques serving the same shoppers Colon describes — liked Barking Irons’ aesthetic, but what sold him on the brand were the background narratives. “There’s something meaningful behind it,” he says. “There’s something to talk about.” Soon Casarella was thinking way beyond T-shirts, and he projected confidence. From that first batch of a few hundred shirts in 2003, Barking Irons had seen its orders climb to 12,000 a season.

It is often said that this generation of teenagers and 20-somethings is the most savvy one ever in its ability to critique and understand commercial persuasion, and it is probably true — just as it was true when the same thing was said of Generation X and of the baby boomers before that. (And it will no doubt be true when it is said, again, of those now in middle school.) But understanding or “seeing through” the branded world is not the same thing as rejecting it. What bothers Casarella about mainstream branding are big, blatant logos that turn the wearer into a walking advertisement and are supposed to function as simplistic “badges.” That approach, he suggests, is what makes big brands as shallow as most Top 40 music or Hollywood movies. It is not that these forms are inherently bad; it is that they always seem built for the lowest common denominator, and the contemporary consumer demands more — more originality, more sincerity, more not-in-the-mainstream, a greater goal than just making money. That is what he sees Barking Irons as doing in the realm of the brand.

Barking Irons does have a logo, but it appears inside his T-shirts, where only the consumer sees it. That’s the way, Dan Casarella maintains, to make a deep connection. If it seems a little incongruous to combat superficiality by way of T-shirts that retail for $60 or more at Barneys or A-list boutiques, well, in his view, that’s the best place to find an audience that “gets it.” When Casarella declares that his project is part of a “revolution against branding,” what he really means is not the snuffing out of commercial expression but an elevation of it.

My third example of a grass-roots brand maker is the Hundreds. Its co-founder, Bobby Kim, is 26, one of three children of Korean parents who came to America and made good; his father is a physician. Growing up in multicultural Los Angeles, Kim was into hip-hop, punk and skateboarding. He is the kind of person that the marketing industry chases relentlessly, and he knows it. But of course he scorns mainstream efforts to speak to his generation. In an essay on his Web site, for example, he blasted the “commercialized” version of skateboarding culture that he sees in the X-Games or on MTV as a “big-industry ruse.”

Four years ago, he met Ben Shenassafar, another child of successful immigrants (his father is an accountant from Iran), not while skateboarding but at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, where they had some first-year classes together. They bonded over their mutual interests in art, music and design — and their mutual horror of becoming the respectable suit-wearing drones their parents wanted them to be. Seeking a more fulfilling alternative, they came up with the Hundreds (as in “selling by the hundreds”).

Now known as Bobby and Ben Hundreds, they started with T-shirts and a Web site. featured Bobby’s essays and interviews with people he admired: “The culture’s finest brands, artists, designers, photographers, retailers and media,” the site says. Department-store chains were too mainstream for the Hundreds; instead, they wanted to get their T-shirts into certain skateboard shops or independent “streetwear” stores. Their bête noir was Urban Outfitters, which they saw as the ultimate corporate vulture.

The first store they set their sights on was Fred Segal, the trendsetting boutique in Santa Monica. They showed up one day in 2003 and “ambushed” the buyer. “There are 50 new T-shirt lines that come out every day,” Bobby explained to me, so they knew that theirs would rise or fall on the strength of the Hundreds as a brand. “We really emphasized that we weren’t just a T-shirt line — we were more of lifestyle” that aimed to “bring this subculture out,” he says.

The Hundreds lifestyle and its components — Los Angeles, skateboarding, music, art — sound a little vague and may be most apparent by analyzing a recent Hundreds T-shirt graphic. The shirt has a title: Jerky Boy. The design takes the logo of Tommy Boy, the pioneering hip-hop label, and reimagines its three silhouette figures in the style of the moshing cartoon teenager used as an emblem of the legendary Southern California punk band the Circle Jerks. Looming over the Circle Jerks mascot, who is repeated in three Tommy Boy poses with props including skateboards and handguns, is “The Hundreds” and the phrase “California Culture.”

Streetwear designers often refer to graphics that riff off some other logo or icon or brand name as “parodies.” Kind of like the Ramones logo, which took the presidential seal but substituted a baseball bat for the arrows the eagle clutches in its talons. But the word “parody” can be misleading: often the visual references are more like a sampled bass line — recognizable to some but not to others — that makes a remix add up to more than the sum of its parts. It can be tribute or mockery or something in between, but the new cultural value that results accrues to the minibrand that did the remixing.

It is impossible to overstate the number of tiny streetwear brands with names like Crooks & Castles or Married to the Mob that are working variations on this territory. And it is easy to see the attraction for the new upstart branders that seem to jump into this realm every day. You don’t have to worry about the credentialing procedures that now define the traditional high arts, like getting a master’s degree from a well-connected art school or hobnobbing on the writer-retreat circuit. For people like Ben and Bobby Hundreds (or the Casarellas or A-Ron), you don’t even need to study marketing. Their apprenticeship was the act of growing up in a thoroughly commercialized world.

The symbols and references and logos these minibrands create are usually said to “represent” a culture or lifestyle. But I found myself asking, What, exactly, did that culture or lifestyle consist of — aside from buying products that represent it?

Bobby did his best to clue me in. “It’s just the idea of trying to be rebellious,” he said. “Or trying to be a little bit anti, questioning government or your parents. Trying to do something different.” Those are familiar answers, and this is hardly the first time that vague rebelliousness has been translated into an aesthetic. The style and iconography of punk, like that of other “spectacular subcultures” (to use the phrase Dick Hebdige coined in “Subculture: The Meaning of Style”), arguably did more than music — let alone ideas — to fulfill one of the crucial functions of any underground: group identity. It just happens that in this instance the symbols, products and brands aren’t an adjunct to the subculture — they are the subculture.

Many of the success stories that these minibrands aspire to replicate — like A Bathing Ape, Supreme and Stussy — have been around since the early 90’s or longer. Countless others have come and gone. Among the survivors are Lenny McGurr and Josh Franklin, better known as the graffiti writers Futura and Stash.

McGurr, who recently turned 50, has seen many iterations of the dance between subculture and mainstream. He made the transition from painting on subway cars to selling paintings in East Village galleries back in the 1980’s. The Futura-Stash creative partnership began around 1990. Separately and together, they made T-shirts, and they struggled to get by. Today, the brands and products they create or oversee — from clothes to vinyl toys to rugs and pillows — are sold in boutiques around the world. Franklin has his own stores, Recon and Nort, in New York, San Francisco, Tokyo and Berlin; Futura has stores in Fukuoka, Japan, and Bangkok. Futura and Stash’s Williamsburg headquarters is a rambling series of rooms filled with boxes of merchandise, 10 or so employees and a skate ramp.

One thing that has changed since the days when they scrambled to make a living is that Japanese consumers have embraced certain small New York brands as something culturally significant and worth a price premium. Nigo, a Japanese designer, built a fanatical following for his A Bathing Ape brand partly because he collaborated with so many graffiti writers and others who had an aura of authenticity that impressed young, hip Japanese consumers. “The legacy of our history from New York gave us a lot more credibility over there than it did here,” McGurr says. He compares it with the black jazz musicians who had to go to Paris to be appreciated.

The second change is technology, which has allowed production to become more accessible. (It is easier than you think for a two-person brand to work with factories overseas, using computer files and the occasional package.) The technology of the Internet has also acted as an amplifier. Ten years ago, a new T-shirt design could not be flashed around the planet minutes after completion. Now there are blogs like Hypebeast and Slam X Hype dedicated to this practice, reporting dozens of new products or design collaborations from the brand underground every day.

There is a third factor: manufactured commodities have in fact become accepted as quasi art objects, and there is no more stark example than the sneaker. Hunting for unusual sneakers and modifying them with markers or different laces has been cool for decades, a phenomenon defined in Harlem and the Bronx. (“We were the first generation, and only one, to enjoy sneaker consumption on our own terms,” Bobbito Garcia declares in his book about sneaker-hunting in the 1970’s and 80’s, “Where’d You Get Those?”) Eventually the sneaker companies began to cater to this market, manufacturing rarity through “limited editions,” commissioning small runs of sneakers made for specific stores or designed with the help of people like Mister Cartoon or Neckface. (If you don’t know who they are, these shoes aren’t for you.) Instead of stealing ideas from the underground, the big sneaker makers positioned themselves as supporting it. The strategy seems to work. Both Stash and Futura have designed co-branded products with Nike.

If sneakerheads were willing to treat athletic shoes made by multinational corporations as cultural objects, then new boutiques would treat them that way, too. Today, there are such boutiques all over the country; people sleep on sidewalks outside some of them because they have heard about some new limited-run product and want to be first in line for it. Occasionally things get out of hand and the police are called. There are magazines about sneakers, and there is a sneaker show on ESPN, and a sneaker Podcast called “Weekly Drop,” and a sneaker documentary, “Just for Kicks.” NikeTalk, a community and gossip Web site created by and for sneakerheads, claims to have more than 50,000 registered users.

Several years ago, some sneaker fans in Australia decided to mount a show of their collections, and this became Sneaker Pimps, which has been on a permanent world tour ever since. When it last hit New York several months ago, the line outside the club Avalon, where the sneakers were on display, stretched well down the block. Inside was a cross between a trade show, a museum exhibition and a night club. Walls were lined with notable sneakers, famous customizers were on hand and an artist named Dave White, who paints impressionistic portraits of sneakers on canvas, was on a platform, working under a spotlight while D.J.’s spun. Later, Public Enemy performed. Warhol’s Factory laid the foundation for giving consumer objects fine-art scrutiny, and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop built on that foundation, but it is hard to imagine that either artist could have predicted such a thorough product-as-medium spectacle. A line of Sneaker Pimps clothing is in the offing.

The effect of the Internet on sneaker hunting has been to make the scene more accessible — and more visible. With the Web, a relative handful of fanatics scattered around the world can look like a scene, and if enough people buy into that idea, then eventually it becomes a scene. This has created a new layer — half-consumer, half-entrepreneur — who snap up hot commodities with the sole intention of reselling at a profit. A T-shirt that Futura or Stash designed 10 years ago, made in small numbers because that was all the market would support, might now trade hands on eBay for $100; today some of the most successful minibrands keep production runs well below demand to maintain an image of specialness and rarity (just as the sneaker giants do). You can say the Internet made the market or that it simply made the market visible, but these are the same thing. Nothing draws people like a crowd, virtual or otherwise. is not fancy, but it makes clever use of technology. The site is regularly updated with gossip from the scene and pictures of the Hundreds’ friends (and of parties and girls). There might be a clip from YouTube, the video-sharing Web site, of an evening news report on the crowd lining up to get the latest Stash-Nike collaboration from a boutique in San Francisco or of local teenage skaters showing off in free Hundreds T’s. Bobby also has a MySpace page and more than 3,500 “friends” (in the MySpace sense of the word). “I don’t want us to be a faceless entity,” he says. “People can talk to us.”

People like Scott Litel, for instance. The Hundreds barely existed when he found their site and sent an enthusiastic e-mail message asking to be part of their promotional “street team.” He was 16 at the time, just another kid in Valencia, 40 miles north of Los Angeles. He listened to punk and hip-hop, preferring to seek out lesser-known acts. But skateboarding was basically the center of his social life. Through skate videos, magazines like Mass Appeal, which covers alternative culture, and then the Internet, he learned about Supreme and various Japanese apparel companies. He would make his mom drive him, or when she wouldn’t, he would take a bus to the Union store in Los Angeles, where the coolest stuff was sold.

Litel liked the Hundreds because of the Southern California connection and because it wasn’t a brand that everybody knew about. It was like hearing a great band before anybody else caught on, the familiar yet underrated pleasure of inside information. “When something’s not made for the masses,” Litel told me, “it’s more personal.”

Soon he was part of the Hundreds team, helping out however he could, spreading the word, just being around. By the time I met Scott earlier this year, Ben and Bobby had started to pay him and had given him a column on the Web site. Now 19, he loved talking to the people at the little stores that sold the Hundreds shirts, going to the events and being part of the community — being, in fact, as he is now known, Scotty Hundreds.

Even in a world where the mainstream is less than monolithic, every subculture sooner or later has to reconcile itself with the larger cultural forces around it. A movement has to move somewhere, and the scene makers have to figure out how to make a living. That is what the Retail Mafia was up to last year at Magic, an apparel trade show that filled the entire Las Vegas Convention Center, with an impressive booth arranged to resemble a Coney Island boardwalk. The Retail Mafia was an alliance of brands associated with the downtown New York scene, including Alife, SSUR — and aNYthing, A-Ron’s brand. Boost Mobile, the West Coast wireless company, had just produced a set of limited-edition phones, co-branded with the Retail Mafia members, as an elaborate strategy to impress “influencers,” which is what corporate America calls Cool Guys.

Stash and Futura had a booth across from the Retail Mafia, and the Hundreds were nearby as well. Instead of displaying their shirts, Ben and Bobby had them on a rack blocked by a table and covered by a sheet. Ben explained that the point wasn’t how many stores they could sell to but which stores. This sounds like a strategy borrowed from luxury goods, but the Hundreds framed it as a matter of integrity: the sheet was there to fend off retail buyers representing stores that stocked too many mainstream brands. The Hundreds brand was being sold in about 60 stores, from New York to Paris to Tokyo, and what mattered was that they were the right kind of stores, stocked with other independent, properly underground brands. They would only lift the sheet for people they could trust.

In his 1934 memoir, “Exile’s Return,” Malcolm Cowley asserted that by 1920 the bohemian “doctrine” of Greenwich Village could be broken down to eight key points. Several of these remain fairly timeless markers of counterculture: liberty, living for the moment, protecting one’s individuality from the common fate of being “crushed and destroyed by a standardized society.” Each person’s “purpose in life,” the codification states, “is to express himself.” Cowley wrote that the bohemians saw themselves standing in opposition to “the business-Christian ethic then represented by The Saturday Evening Post,” a mainstream valuing “industry, foresight, thrift and personal initiative.”

But that old-fashioned value system, Cowley argued, shifted to a consumption ethic of spending and leisure, and the bohemian doctrine, it turned out, “proved quite useful” to the new mainstream ethic. Cowley posited that bohemian ideas about the primacy of self-expression and living for the moment “encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match.” The shift, he wrote, happened shortly after World War I. So for 80 years or more, the central problem of consumer culture and counterculture has been the same: it is very easy to confuse the two. Which is why, actually, Cowley was not so much praising the bohemian idea as scorning it.

Every subsequent counterculture has wrestled with the same basic predicaments, although the terms of the debate have, gradually, evolved. Punk’s media moment passed by the early 80’s, but it helped inspire a new counterculture, sketched by the music critic Ann Powers in her pop-culture memoir, “Weird Like Us.” She described how under-the-radar fliers and fanzines, small record labels and other modes and tactics “coalesced into practices that went by names bluntly characterizing their hands-on approach: indie, for independent, or D.I.Y., or do-it yourself.” The hip-hop and skateboarding subcultures operated in much the same way. And while Powers has less to say about the visual arts, a generation of designers and graffiti artists in cities and suburbs across America — Barry McGee, Mark Gonzales, Kaws, Ryan McGinness and others — built reputations outside the gallery world and under these very influences.

In “Beautiful Losers,” a catalog for a traveling museum exhibition of those artists, Aaron Rose, a curator, points out that pretty much all the artists in the show “have at some point broken the law to express themselves.” On the other hand, Rose points out that many of these artists have dabbled in the commercial world, whether accepting projects for big companies or becoming de facto brands unto themselves. The 1980’s and early 90’s was a time when certain record shops, small record labels (Sub Pop, SST, etc.) and even logos (like the artist Raymond Pettibon’s for the L.A. punk band Black Flag) started to matter almost as much as the bands. And while some brand-underground participants cite the influence of hip-hop as evidence that their tastes transcend standard demographic categorization (it’s a “mash culture” or a “merge culture” and so on), the real significance of that influence may be that no other spectacular subculture has so exuberantly venerated the leveraging of nonmainstream authenticity into entrepreneurial and material success.

If the dance between subculture and mainstream has always been more compromised than it appears and if every iteration of the bohemian idea is steadily more entrepreneurial than the last, then maybe a product-based counterculture is inevitable. Maybe subcultures are always about turning lifestyles into business — or the very similar goal of never having to grow up. Maybe the familiar corporations-against-individuals dynamic (“They manufacture lifestyle; we live lives,” as The Baffler, the alt-opinion journal, declared in 1993) is simply outdated. In “Weird Like Us,” Powers wrote, “I believe that alternative America becomes stronger by willingly engaging with the mainstream.” Maybe that’s what this optimistic generation is up to and maybe its strategy of engagement is simply more pragmatic than the carefully crafted cynicism of past cliques of self-styled outsiders.

Actually, I’m not sure I completely buy that. Refusing to be the fodder for someone else’s lifestyle-making machine because you are building your own still strikes me as a hollow victory. But maybe I’m just too old to get it. And I have to admit, the more time I spent with the minibrand entrepreneurs, the more I had to concede that what they have been up to is more complicated than simply imitating the culture they claim to be rebelling against. They believe what they are doing has meaning beyond simple commercial success. For them, there is something fully legitimate about taking the traditional sense of branding and reversing it: instead of dreaming up ideas to attach to products, they are starting with ideas and then dreaming up the products to express them.

When I saw Ben and Bobby with their collection at Magic, the trade show in Las Vegas, they had just taken the bar exam. Their parents — who wanted their kids to take advantage of the American-dream opportunities offered by a good education — were disheartened that the Hundreds was looking less and less like a phase. Of course, to Ben and Bobby, the Hundreds is the American dream.

The thought of ending up a lawyer, stuck in the mainstream world in such a decisive way and forsaking the partying and hanging out with other people involved in the brand-underground scene, had been much on Bobby’s mind as he worked on new designs. He came up with a shirt that borrowed the silhouettes of the Lost Boys from a Peter Pan cartoon, included a quote from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and tweaked the results into a starker, streety style by the inevitable inclusion of the Hundreds logo.

A few months later, they got the official word: they had both flunked the bar. Ben sent out the specs for the spring ’06 line; orders climbed to 4,500 shirts. “We never have to grow up,” Bobby said.

Barking Irons popped up in GQ, Elle Girl, Maxim and elsewhere. The main character (played by Adrian Grenier) on the HBO show “Entourage” wore a Barking Irons shirt, and this fact was reported in People magazine. Late last year, the brand went global: a friend of the brothers’ helped coordinate a miniature trade show in Tokyo, leading to their first sales to Japanese retailers and a full-page spread in a Japanese shopping magazine. The Casarellas included a few more point-of-view brands like No Mas, whose T-shirts and other products explore the deeper meanings of sports culture. And they traveled to Turkey, where they had found an apparel factory to manufacture “better garments,” like polo shirts, thermals, hoodies and belts.

The brothers felt they needed to expand quickly, they told me late last year, because imitators were already at their heels. Daniel showed me a magazine page featuring one of their T-shirts along with several other shirts that knocked off their visual style but paired the graphics with words and phrases like “Crap” or “This Sucks.” This was one of Casarella’s fears: competing against a dumbed-down, meaningless version of his own ideas. Meanwhile, the relationship with Triluxe, their distributor, collapsed. Such firms promote and distribute apparel brands, showing their wares at trade shows and in private showrooms, advising them on sourcing and pricing strategies and taking a cut of the money. The brothers had decided that based on some belated research, they were paying too big a cut. After months of bickering, the partnership melted down for good in April.

By then the brothers had signed a lease on a 3,000-square-foot space on the fourth floor of a building downtown on Bowery, below Delancey. When I visited in May, it seemed like an awful lot of room for a two-or-three-person company. A few antique pieces were lying around, some framed maps, a trunk, a barrel, a fitting dummy. The plan is to turn the back half of the space into a showroom, possibly pulling in some other brands. They were also plotting a Web site — part magazine, part online store for selling some of the antiques they have collected. But the better-garment orders were around half of the minimums that the Turkish factory required, and in late June they were still waiting for deliveries that they had hoped to have a month earlier. T-shirt orders had been around 10,000 — a slight decline from the previous year. The trend-spotting blogs that helped early on had moved on to spotting more upstart brands, with new points of view. Lately, Daniel was suffering from headaches that he couldn’t seem to shake.

One thing that makes these upstarts harder to write off than the familiar waves of M.B.A.’s declaring that Internet companies are rebellious or that being a middle-management “change agent” is the new rock ’n’ roll is that, for all the literal and figurative headaches, they are sticking to their ideas. It just happens that their ideas are tied up in products. The Casarellas are now making jewelry out of some vintage New York silverware pieces they have collected. And printed inside their branded garments is a Walt Whitman quote: “Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”

In March, the Hundreds had a breakthrough. Their spring ’06 line, still dominated by T-shirts, included a hoodie with an all-over paisley print. The day these arrived, a number of their cool-guy friends dropped by the new office space they had rented in West Hollywood; Bobby took pictures and posted them on One of these images ended up on the front page of Hype Beast, the streetwear blog. Bobby put the whole line up for sale on the Web site at 1:30 in the morning; then he turned off his cellphone and went to bed. A few hours later, his girlfriend was pounding on the door of his apartment. Ben, unable to reach Bobby, had called her with the news: the entire line had sold out. Bobby posted a new entry on the site: “Which one of you sickos is up at 4 a.m. buying T-shirts?”

Soon the paisley hoodies were going for $250 or more on eBay, two or three times the retail price. Of course, Ben and Bobby had only made about 500 of them and under the orthodoxy of the scene would look like sellouts if they manufactured more. (Ben’s accountant father has softened on the Hundreds as a potential business, but couldn’t understand why they didn’t make more of those “stupid paisley hoodies,” Ben says.) A few weeks later, the retail consulting firm Doneger, whose clients include major department-store chains, sent out a bulletin called “Streetwear — The Next Generation,” naming brands that trendsetting kids in New York City were wearing. The list included Nike and Stussy, but also upstarts like Artful Dodger, Triko. . .and the Hundreds. Their summer ’06 T-shirt orders were up to 10,000.

Not surprisingly, the Hundreds were optimistic; Bobby talked about the brand being around “for centuries.” On the site, he posted pictures of the latest line outside Supreme: “It’s a great sign for our industry/culture/scene/whatever-it-is. It shows how fast we’re all growing. . .another notch for the independents.” In a way, the primary goal that binds together all the disparate entities of the new brand underground is independence: the Next Big Thing will be a million small things.

Even so, sometimes Bobby felt as if something were missing. When he talked about it, he seemed to be grappling with the kinds of things that had bothered me earlier when I had been trying to figure out whether there was more to the Hundreds lifestyle than buying certain products and brands. “I kind of feel like these kids — all they know is sneaker collecting and buying T-shirts, and they don’t think about anything else. Every T-shirt brand is just something stupid — a rapper and some guns.” Bobby said he wanted to steer the Hundreds look in a more “socially conscious, activist-oriented” direction, maybe dealing with issues like the way efforts to defend freedom can curtail freedom. Now that the Hundreds has a voice and a following, he said, “I’d like to say something.”

Just like his subculture and bohemian heroes, A-Ron has an uneasy relationship with the commercial mainstream and its representatives. He sees his brand as something apart from the sneakerhead world, let alone fancy department stores. “I ran into the Boost guys recently,” Bondaroff told me some months after the phone-marketing stunt had ended, “and I told them I wasn’t really happy with the project. It didn’t change anybody’s lives; it didn’t make history.” Maybe it helped Boost, since the phones were written up in Rolling Stone and other magazines, but it hadn’t helped him. The Retail Mafia basically ceased to exist as a concept, and half the brands in what he called “the movement” were scrambling to work with the sneaker giants or other big brands, from Levi’s to New Era. “We’re independent brands, we did this for a reason, not to be like the establishment brands,” he said. “It’s, like, what’s the purpose? Why’d you start your brand — just to be an offshoot of a major company?”

But while A-Ron has figured out how to turn his lifestyle into a business, it is still not a business with much scale. “I don’t want to be sitting at my desk 10 years from now,” he told me, “trying to be cool and witty, better than the next little brand.” He is trying to tie aNYthing to more projects, with more meaning, to more people: music, books, even a documentary. He has opened an online store on his Web site, where his blog announces the latest parties and offers pictures of the cool people dropping by his store. He traveled to Europe for the summer trade shows there and has been thinking about whether he can open a store in Japan.

But lately he has come to the conclusion that to join the time line of underground movements that left a mark on the culture, he has to figure out how to get aNYthing recognized well beyond Delancey Street. To “cross over,” he said, you need “to make your thing official, to stamp it” — the way rap videos did it for A Bathing Ape in the U.S. or how the brief glimpses of Supreme logos in Larry Clark’s movie “Kids” helped that brand. You need access to the mainstream. He would not even rule out shopping malls, under the right circumstances.

“My whole thing now is if you don’t sell out, you sell out on yourself,” he went on to announce. If he could get the money, the resources, he could go bigger, with more creative projects, reaching more people — and he wouldn’t worry about being called a sellout. He raised his eyebrows for emphasis: “I was cool before this thing happened. It didn’t make me cool.” It’s a line of thought that many cultural rebels come around to, sooner or later. “We’re here,” he told me, “to do business.”

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for the magazine and is working on a book about consumer behavior.

Friday, July 28, 2006

From 1999: why design matters.

link to original article in Fast Company.

Why We Buy

Computers are a commodity: They're all the same shape and color. The iMac changes all of that. Jonathan Ive, designer of the iMac, describes the rules behind design that has power, passion, and purpose -- design that makes us buy.

From: Issue 29 | October 1999 | Page 282 | By: Charles Fishman

About the tamest description offered of Apple's saucy iMac computer is that it is "postbeige" -- a neat phrase that is simultaneously descriptive and hopeful.

More typically, the 15-month-old iMac has inspired a blossoming of puns, metaphors, colorful language, and just plain silliness:

The iMac is egg-shaped, gumdrop-shaped, pear-shaped, hood-shaped, and beach-ball-like.

It is cute 'n' jazzy, retro-curvy, funky and snazzy, and extremely friendly.

It is a glowing, fruit-hued, Lifesaver-colored, trendoid status symbol.

It is an accessory, not just a tool.

You want to touch it, to hug it, to tickle it under its chin.

The iMac has put the crunch back into Apple. It is electrifying the entire computer industry. It is a design breakthrough.

Buying an iMac makes you feel hopeful again. It is a revolution in a box.

The iMac's design evokes such an emotional response that it even fires the imaginations of its critics. Tom Wolfe, who might have been prefiguring the iMac when he wrote "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," recently grumped that the iMac symbolized the death of 20th-century American design. The iMac, he said, is a "blobjet." On its own Web site, Apple calls it a "rocket computer."

Call it what you will, the iMac is indisputably successful. In its first year on the market, 2 million iMacs were sold. During most of that time, the iMac was the number one -- selling computer model in the country.

And, not surprisingly, the computer has had a direct impact on Apple's bottom line: The iMac has helped pull Apple back to profitability for two years in a row and has helped boost the company's stock price from 15 to 70.

As no computer has done since the early days of Apple computers, the iMac has captivated consumers. Apple claims that one-third of individuals who bought iMacs never owned a computer before; independent surveys cut that figure in half. Either way, it's an amazing statistic. People have been moved to purchase a first computer because of the image that the iMac conveys -- because of its colors, its approachability, its simplicity. The iMac has even managed to silence the decadelong crossfire -- PC or Mac? Apple seems to be winking broadly at that question and asking one of its own: Which color? It may be difficult to believe, but until the iMac came along, no manufacturer had produced a computer in a rainbow of colors. Colors pose inventory problems. Who needs the extra hassle? Khaki computers work just fine.

The iMac won a spot in popular culture almost instantly -- it has come to represent all turn-of-the-century computers. On shows like "Ally McBeal," office workers use iMacs simply because their appearance says, "I am a cool computer in a cool office."

The iMac's role as icon is no accident. Orchestrated by Steve Jobs, Apple's cofounder and interim CEO (iCEO), the iMac is the labor of Jonathan Ive and the industrial-design group that he heads. Ive, 32, a Brit, started his career in London, designing everything from washbasins and bathtubs to TVs and VCRs for Japanese companies. As a contractor, Ive also helped design Apple's early PowerBooks, and he headed from London to Cupertino, California to join Apple full-time in 1992.

Almost everything that's striking about the iMac -- its unassuming shape, its candy-shop colors, its inviting cable cover -- had been carefully calculated. A case in point: Ive himself talked to companies that produce translucent candy to make sure that the iMac's translucence worked just right.

Ive's development group -- which also produced the iMac's new sibling, the iBook -- is intensely secretive. Reporters aren't allowed to interview Ive in his office because there's too much cool, futuristic stuff lying around. Ive won't say how many people work in industrial design, and he won't hint at what will come after the iBook, except to say, "We feel that we're just getting going."

Fast Company talked with Ive about the design principles that infuse the iMac, the iBook, and the ongoing work of his design group. From bathtubs to computers, here are some of Ive's fundamental rules for creating a design that sells.
Good Design Starts a Good Conversation

The right conversation is one that's meaningful to customers. Part of that is about design. And a lot of that is about making the design understandable. Because the technology is powerful, and because we're very confident about that, we don't have to obsess about trying to communicate just how powerful the iMac is. We can be more overtly concerned about, and put a lot of energy into, other attributes.

When people shop for an iMac, I love that the discussion is now much more egalitarian, more accessible, and more open, instead of being about technologies that many people don't understand. I like that you can go into a store and have a discussion about which color you want. That's something that the whole family can do. That's exciting. We've made the whole process of buying and using computers more accessible.

A Computer Is Not a Teacup . . .

The iMac is a holistic product. The price is right, the performance is right, and the combination of those two attributes, along with the design, has made it a well-balanced, relevant product.

But design alone would not have been sufficient to make it successful. It's important to understand the contribution that design can make. It's significant. But if factors like performance and price are not right, then design would be fairly irrelevant.

One thing that is in the genes of Apple Computer, the company, is connecting people with technology in a friendly and accessible way. If you've got technology on the one hand and you've got people on the other, then an object's design -- no matter what that object is -- defines the nature of that connection.

That's particularly true of high-technology products, because the internal workings of the machine are enigmatic. The majority of people simply do not understand how those things work. And there is no physical expression of the object's function. Unlike, for example, a teacup or a comb, which are what they do.

A washbasin is a good example; that's something I've actually designed in the past. A washbasin's form and function are exactly the same. The object's appearance and meaning are completely accessible: It looks like a washbasin, because that's what it is. You look at it, and you think, "Okay, I understand that." People make an immediate connection with it.

With technology, the function is much more abstract to users, and so the product's meaning is almost entirely defined by the designer. I think that's an incredible opportunity, but with that opportunity comes an enormous responsibility. If you are designing an object, you are defining what it means to people: You are conveying what the object is, what it does, how it does it, where it does it, and how much it's going to cost. So especially if you're dealing with incredibly compelling technology like computers, the responsibility is to make the relationship between people and the technology as effective, as natural, as accessible, and as enjoyable as possible.

. . . But a Computer Might Be an Entire Tea Set

When we started designing the iMac, we were wrestling with the question, What is the function of a computer? One thing that really struck us was that a computer's function can change radically: It can be a digital video-editing station, a content browser, or a typewriter. That's a unique ability -- for something to change its function so dramatically. So we were wrestling with the fluid nature of the object. At the same time, we were trying to make the technology as accessible, as friendly, and as nonthreatening as possible. That involves focusing on a couple of levels.

The first level we focused on was the overall form of the product. It absolutely needed to be about tomorrow, and we really wanted to define something new. But something dramatically new can actually alienate people. That design challenge represented an interesting paradox for us: how to create something for tomorrow that people are comfortable with today.

A lot of energy went into defining an overall form that was in some senses "strangely familiar" but that was also about tomorrow.

Design Is All about Understanding

We didn't come up with an architectural solution. That's one of the things that struck us about how a computer's function changes. The design should be something that feels fluid and dynamic. I think the iMac looks like it's just arrived or is just about to leave. It's not something that's grounded permanently to the surface that you put it on.

A number of details reflect that sense as well. The handle, for instance, clearly makes the iMac something that's not permanent. It makes it approachable, accessible. Obviously, the primary function of a handle is to be able to carry a product around. Another thing about the handle is that when people see it, they immediately understand its purpose. It unambiguously references your hand. So when you first meet the product, you understand something about it, and it understands something about you.

People don't necessarily understand the internal components and the essential function of the machine. But they can look at its exterior and actually understand elements of it immediately.

Beyond understanding the iMac, people want to touch it. When you see a handle, you want to use it: That reaction is instinctive, immediate, and universal. When you look at an object like a handle, you instantly form subconscious opinions about it.

Another attractor is the nature of the surfaces. The surfaces look like they'd be good to touch. There's a real unity to the iMac. There's no traditional front, top, back, and sides. I think that makes it inviting. Most design tends to focus on an object's front -- as the one surface that people will address themselves to. But inherently, when you present the front, people assume that the front is better than the back. The back is merely a consequence; it's just hanging on for the ride. One of the things that we've accomplished with the iMac is to create a design that gives integrity to the shape of the whole: The computer's back and sides are as interesting, arresting, and important as its front.

Also, there's the nature of the translucent material. Most computers are made of materials that keep everything on the surface. But with the iMac, you get this fluid effect, the way the light transforms the material and the color. It's not just about surface, it's about depth.

Sometimes a Designer Has to Think inside the Box

The primary purpose of the handle, of course, is to make the product easy to move, which is what we knew people would want. But it also suggests something else: When you can move something, you dominate it. Making it easy to move helps people feel less intimidated by the object or by the technology, which many, many people are.

In fact, one of our goals for designing the packaging was to have the handle be one of the first things you see when you open the box. The idea is that the first piece of packing foam you pull out becomes a little table for the manual, the keyboard, and the accessories. After you remove that piece of foam, you see the handle. You know what to do next. That's the great thing about handles: You know what they're there for.

Once you take the iMac out of its packaging, you can put the accessory box on the little table. You open that, and it's clear what to do next. One cable is for power, one is for Internet access, and one connects the keyboard.

It sounds simple and obvious. But often, getting to that level of simplicity requires enormous iteration in design. You have to spend considerable energy understanding the problems that exist and the issues people have -- even when they find it difficult to articulate those issues and problems themselves.

So when you ask why the iMac has been such a success, the answer is, the design combined with the Macintosh interface. It's just how easy the product is to take out of the box, set up, and use. That simplicity is about removing the obstacles that have made so many people intimidated by the technology in the past.
Before It Persuades Customers, a New Product Has to Persuade Its Own Company

What drove the design of the iMac was a vision and a commitment to create the best consumer computer that we could. In other words, we made the needs of the customer our highest priority. And when you do that, it places significant demands on different parts of the company.

For example, we found that the right place for a lot of the cable connectors was on the side of the iMac, which is where they are more accessible. You don't have to get up and go around to the back or move the entire machine to get to them. That was an example of trying to address issues of utility and function.

But from an engineering perspective, the easiest place to put connectors is on the back. Putting them on the side was actually very difficult and would mean elevating the concerns of the user way above those of the engineers. That drove having an easy-to-adjust keyboard and also the flip-out foot. It's sort of intuitive.

Another example: We knew people wanted a choice of colors. But if we offered people one color, we knew the next question would be, When can we have other colors? That poses a number of significant challenges for manufacturing, distribution, and managing inventory -- especially if you have demands for a certain color. Color options have never been offered in our industry.

In that sense, I think the iMac reflects the original mission: to create a great consumer product. More broadly than that, it stands as a testament to a company that not only shared the same vision but could also implement that vision. Somebody asked me how we'd convinced the people at Apple that what we were proposing with the iMac and the iBook was the right thing.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we'd spent zero energy trying to cajole the people at Apple into believing that what we were proposing was right. We'd put all of our energy into coming up with the content and into creating just the right design. We'd been incredibly self-critical. And as a result, it took us many iterations to get to the right solution -- the one that we ultimately wanted to develop and to market.

But, by genuinely trying to design a product for people in a very natural way, people were intrigued by the product -- whether they were our managers or our customers.

What You Can't Measure Is Often What Matters Most

The computer industry is immature; it has been preoccupied with technology and driven by technologists. In some senses, the value proposition for consumers has degenerated into an argument that "Five is a greater number than two." Go back a year, and the value proposition was, "Our machine has a larger hard drive than yours," or "Our machine is cheaper than yours."

There was an obsession with product attributes that you could measure with numbers. And that's an easy value proposition to articulate: Five is a bigger number than two. It's much more difficult to articulate the value of product attributes that are less tangible. I think it's at the heart of Apple, in the genes of the company, that these other attributes do matter.

A lot of that is knowing how an object elicits an emotional reaction from people. The response can range from a perception to a physical reaction. That is, people touch it and pat it. One of the things we've seen repeatedly with the iMac is that people in stores want to touch it.

There are a number of simple ways that you can physically connect with the iMac. You can pick it up by the handle. Or you can open the door on the side to get to the connectors. When you open that door, you discover that it's a really simple circle -- a hole. It's obvious. You put your finger inside the hole to pull the door open.

Now there were lots of solutions we could have used to open that door, including discreet, technical latches. But there was something so simple and so human about the solution we eventually pursued.

These are the less-tangible product attributes, but they're still important. We made some major life decisions based on stuff that's difficult to assign a number to.

With the iBook, we're trying to engage people even more. If you think about people touching an object, the iBook takes that experience to another level. We're combining materials with different attributes and properties. We're combining rubber with polycarbonate to get strength and warmth.

We're doing those things because when we started working on the iBook, we defined a list of all the attributes that we wanted the product materials to have. That list ranged from robust, strong, structural, and hard, to attributes like soft, yielding, and warm. We included those attributes because the iBook is something you'll be taking with you. That makes it a highly personal product; you're going to spend a lot of time carrying it.

That list of attributes contained polar opposites. Although we couldn't find one material with all those properties, we found that by developing some processes to combine materials, we could design a case that really did have all those properties.

Another example of less-tangible attributes is the sleep light on the iBook. When traditional products go into sleep mode, the light blinks on and off. That solves the functional problem, which is to describe a state the object is in. But we felt that a blinking light did it in a machinelike way.

For the iBook, we developed a sleep light that glows on and off. When people describe it, they say that it looks like the computer is breathing or beating. Rather than just having it switch on and off in a very mechanical way, the iBook breathes on and off. It's actually been remarkable how many people have commented on that. The design of that one feature has made the iBook seem more fluid, more organic.

That light illustrates the difference we're seeking to make in the industry. The traditional blinking light works; it addresses the functional imperative. But I knew that we could find a more organic, human solution. When you see the iBook, when you pick it up, when you turn it on, or even when you put it to sleep, you get a sense that it was designed and manufactured by a group of people who care -- maybe fanatically -- about the details.

Do we acknowledge that it's not functionally critical to care about all those details? Absolutely. We know that. But we also know that we've got overarching design principles that we're seeking to express: simplicity, accessibility, honesty -- and enjoyment. We're really seeking to design products that people will enjoy.

Why does it matter whether you enjoy using something?

Because it makes you happy. And it's good to be happy.

Charles Fishman (, a senior editor at Fast Company, set up his mom and dad's iMac. You can read more about the iMac and the iBook on the Web (

Sunday, July 23, 2006

How to be happy.

Avoid situations both in and out of work where you lack control or have a surplus of choice. Don't dwell on the past and don't indulge to excess. Don't hang around with people who are in your line of work, but do make friends with people who share your interests. Make decisions on the basis of actual evidence and bias towards action. Spouses are underrated, kids are overrated, and sports are definitely overrated.

link to original piece.


Happiness: A User's Manual

Twenty strategies adapted from the scientific research and applied to New York living.

By Ben Mathis-Lilley

Decide where to go to college by picking two decent schools and flipping a coin.

The relatively unexamined life is worth living. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice documents numerous studies in which thinking too hard about multiple choices leads people to preemptively regret the options they’re going to miss out on. This triggers a stress reaction that tends to focus narrowly on random variables—producing unwise decisions, paralysis, and superfluous law degrees. Those who seize the first option that meets their standards (which don’t have to be low, just defined) are happier than those who insist on finding the perfect solution.

Don’t go to law school.

Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than members of other professions, and it’s not just because their jobs are more stressful. For most people, job stress has little effect on happiness unless it is accompanied by a lack of control (lawyers, of course, have clients to listen to) or involves taking something away from somebody else (a common feature of the legal system).

Fire your therapist if he so much as mentions your childhood.

Contra Freud and pro common sense, much of Authentic Happiness author Martin Seligman’s research suggests that rehashing events that enraged you long ago tends to produce depression rather than sweet closure and relief.

If someone tells you he’s still pining for his ex, ask the ex out.

Stumbling on Happiness author Dan Gilbert is currently conducting a study designed to show that the best way to predict how much you’ll enjoy a blind date is to ask the last person to go out with your date how much fun he had.

If you can’t decide what TV to buy, walk across the hall and ask your neighbor if he likes his.

In multiple studies, subjects felt they’d be better able to predict their reaction to an experience by imagining it, rather than hearing somebody else’s testimony. Even regarding such seemingly straightforward activities as deciding whether to eat pretzels or potato chips, they were wrong. Turns out, people are happier following advice.

Send the kids off to day care, summer camp, and boarding school.

On a day-to-day basis, caring for children creates roughly the same level of satisfaction as washing the dishes. In fact, surveys of parents invariably find a clear dip in happiness after the Blessed Miracle of Childbirth, which continues unabated for twenty years—bottoming out during adolescence—and only returns to pre-birth levels when the child finally leaves home.

But make sure they’re busy once they get there.

Seligman cites research indicating that children who develop hobbies and interests besides loitering and watching TV are much more likely to be satisfied later in life.

If you go on a shopping spree, throw away the receipts.

In one study cited by both Schwartz and Gilbert, photography students were allowed to keep only one picture taken during their course. Some students were later allowed to swap their choice for a different photo, yet those who couldn’t change were much happier. How did they deal with inflexibility? By rationalizing how much they enjoyed their new decoration.

If you’re on the fence about whether to sell your stock, sell it.

Most people predict that they’d be more unhappy if they sold a stock that went through the roof than if they kept one that tanked. They’re wrong—aggressive actions that go awry are mentally catalogued as valuable learning experiences.

Take the local, and don’t wait for the express.

Inaction, on the other hand, gnaws away at the mind relentlessly, like so many rats chewing on an empty Mountain Dew bottle someone dropped onto the tracks as you idly waited for the 4. You should have just jumped on the 6.

Give up the great American novel, and start temping.

Some poor countries (China, Brazil) are happier than others, but few nations are mired in spiritually fulfilling poverty. Money, when used to feel secure about your ability to shelter and feed yourself, can, in fact, buy happiness.

But don’t work overtime . . .

The marginal life-enhancing value of each extra dollar quickly levels off, however; hence the existence of James Bond villains and studies showing that lottery winners and Forbes 100 members are no more likely to be satisfied than anyone else.

. . . As long as you’re content socializing within your tax bracket.

Nevertheless, being aware of how much less money one has acquired than one’s peers is quantifiably frustrating.

Join a church, a yoga studio, an Alcoholics Anonymous group, or an underground fight club.

People who have more friends and belong to community-building groups are happier. To paraphrase the Norm MacDonald–era “Weekend Update,” perhaps that’s the kind of finding that could have been published in the scientific journal Duh, but there it is.

Order from the same takeout menu every time.

Researchers found that subjects asked to choose their meals weeks in advance mistakenly predicted that variety would make them happier, while those who simply decided what to eat on the spot were completely satisfied with the same thing each week. (Although eating macaroni and cheese endlessly, like repeating any pleasant experience over and over, reduces its appeal—so switch it up with cheeseburgers.)

Take advantage of your exercise machine’s “cooldown period.”

One study found that men who underwent short, uniformly unpleasant colonoscopies found them more repulsive than men who had long procedures with a brief respite near the end. Adding a slightly less grueling epilogue to a grueling but valuable experience—like a workout—makes you more willing to repeat it in the future, even if it means an increase in the overall gruel endured.

Patronize King Cole’s and other establishments that employ a “mixologist”; avoid any bar named after an Irish person.

Spending your alcohol allowance on a few finely crafted cocktails is probably better than guzzling giant troughs of beer, since the ability to limit one’s indulgence is one of the baseline characteristics of happy people. Researchers aren’t sure whether moderation is chicken or egg, but they do know that teetotaling doesn’t confer any particular advantage.

Ask the next person you meet on to marry you.

Studies show that married people are happier than unmarried people. Too much choice, whether over tonight’s dinner or your partner for the next 50 years, can create paralysis and anxiety. If you make a mistake, you have the capacity to rationalize the worst decisions. And if all of that doesn’t work, well, we’re able to find happiness in even the most hopeless situations.

Splurge on a restaurant after the Yankees playoff game.

College kids surveyed in the weeks before emotionally high-stakes athletic competitions tended to dramatically overestimate how happy they’d be after wins because they forgot victories don’t eliminate sources of irritation. Similarly, they overestimated how upset they’d be after their team lost because they failed to remember that they could be comforted by other sources of pleasure.

Don’t watch the Knicks.

Not related to any recent scientific findings. Just sound advice.

Should happiness even be the goal?

Are we able to even feel anything after a while if we are happy all the time?

Perhaps it is enough to strive to avoid unhappiness. Moderation in all things.


From New York Magazine.

link to original piece.

Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

More and more psychologists and researchers believe they know what makes people happy. But the question is, does a New Yorker want to be happy?

By Jennifer Senior

The smiley face, that symbol of empty-headed cheerfulness, is a visage no New Yorker (or happiness researcher, in fact) could love. So, in the following pages, several New York graphic designers offer their own riffs on the icon

They say you can’t really assign a number to happiness, but mine, it turns out, is 2.88. That’s not as bad as it sounds. I was being graded on a scale of 1 to 5. My score was below average for my age, education level, gender, and occupation, sure, but at exactly the 50 percent mark for my Zip Code. Liking my job probably helped, being an atheist did not, and neither did my own brain chemistry, which, in spite of my best efforts to improve it, remains more acidic than I’d like. Unhappy thoughts can find surprisingly little resistance up there, as if they’ve found some wild river to run along, while everything else piles up along the banks.

The test I took was something called the Authentic Happiness Inventory, and the man who designed it, Chris Peterson, is one of the first people I meet at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Unlike many who study happiness for a living, he seems to embody it, though he tells me that’s a recent development. He offers me an impromptu tour of the place (walls of salmon and plum and turquoise; tables piled high with complimentary granola bars), then wanders toward his office, absently hugging an orange-juice bottle to his stomach as he drifts, having graciously offered to check, at my request, which Zip Codes are the happiest and the most miserable in his 350,000-person database. At the end of the day, I check in with him.

The happiest, he reports, is Branson, Missouri’s.

“But please appreciate—and this is a formal disclaimer—that these are not representative respondents,” he says. “These are just people who logged on to our Website and took our happiness measure.” In other words, hundreds of mental patients from Chicago could have decided to take the test, while only fifteen Buddhists in Baja did the same, which would result in a very skewed perception of the well-being of Chicagoans and Bajans. I ask how many people from Branson took the test. “A small number,” he warns. “I think it was two or three. And the other happiest Zip Codes are also represented by a very small number of respondents. Nonetheless, I think the results are kind of interesting. Missoula, Montana. Rural Minnesota. Rural Indiana. Rural Alabama. Savannah, Georgia. The Outer Banks. Is there a theme here? There’s a theme here. It seems to run through the Bible Belt and go straight up north. And if you want to know the absolutely most miserable Zip Code—and this is based on a very large number of people—it seems to start with 101.”

That’s the prefix assigned to many of the office buildings in midtown Manhattan. “Staten Island is also miserable,” he adds.

So what does this say about New York? I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe that if you make it there, you can make it anywhere, but you won’t be happy doing it.”

This past spring, the Boston Globe reported that the single most popular course at Harvard was about positive psychology, or the study of well-being. Its immense appeal took everyone by surprise. Just one year before, the instructor, Tal Ben-Shahar, offered the course for the first time, and although it was certainly a hit, with 380 students enrolled, no one could have imagined that the following year the number would have jumped to 855.

There’s a theme here, too. Back in the mid-1840s, a Scot by the irresistible name of Samuel Smiles was invited to lecture before a class in “mutual improvement” in the north of England—a class, he later noted in a book, that also began with two or three young men but grew so large it took over a former cholera hospital. That book is called Self-Help, published in 1859. It is considered by many to be the first of its genre. Today, it’s still in print, and has even come up in Ben-Shahar’s Harvard class. He has tremendous respect for it.

"For many years,” says Ben-Shahar, “the people who were writing about happiness were the self-help gurus. It had a bad rap. It was all ‘five easy steps,’ rather than dignity and hard work. What I’m trying to do in my class is to regain respectability for the concept of self-help. It’s a great thing, if you think about it literally. It’s what this country was built on.”

The pursuit of happiness was indeed at the heart of America’s conception. But the study of happiness—as a science, with random-assignment, placebo-controlled testing—is a far more recent phenomenon. And right now, it’s booming. At least two basic positive-psychology textbooks are being published this fall, one written by Peterson, the other by a University of Kansas professor named Shane Lopez, whose publisher estimates that roughly 150 colleges will be offering some kind of positive-psychology course next year. Since 2000, the University of Erasmus at Rotterdam has been publishing the Journal of Happiness Studies (whose editorial board is represented in curious disproportion by Californians and Germans). At Barnes & Noble, there are three excellent books about happiness now sitting on the shelves: the divinely readable Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, about how hopeless we are at predicting our moods; The Happiness Hypothesis, by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt, about the ways that ancient wisdom about flourishing intersects with the modern; and Happiness: A History, an intellectually elegant work by historian Darrin McMahon, which is exactly as it sounds, but darker.

Ellen Langer, a professor at Harvard, ventures that the explosive interest in positive psychology is, like so many cultural curiosities involving self-obsession, a boomer phenomenon. “There’s a feeling of, ‘I’m not going off to some nursing home,’ ” she says. (And she should know: During the seventies, she found that the more control nursing-home patients had—over watering their plants, for example—the longer they were apt to live.) And there are undoubtedly other factors at work. Universities, for example, have become more sensitive today to the intense pressures on their students (at Harvard, the chief of mental-health services recently came out with a book called The College of the Overwhelmed). Economics has also started to take the discipline of psychology seriously again—Malcolm Gladwell’s books are a sure testimony to this—and the psychology of positivity and productivity were a perfect fit for the ethos of the bubble years. (Recently, I’ve come to wonder whether positive psychology isn’t also the perfect discipline for the era of George Bush, the decider, the man who remains shinily optimistic no matter how many red lights are glowing on his dashboard.)

But the happiness-studies boom may have an even simpler explanation: In 1998, an enterprising, highly established, and press-savvy psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, convened a group of his peers in Mexico, hoping to help shift the emphasis of psychology away from pathology and toward functionality, resilience, and well-being. He coined the term positive psychology to describe the scientific study of these things—the study of happiness, in short—and because he was president of the American Psychological Association, he was able to shore up prestige and grant money for its pursuit.

“What’s unique about Seligman is that he’s not only a great psychologist but a great organizer, a leader,” says Ben-Shahar, who’s also got a book about happiness in the After five minutes on the phone with Ben-Shahar, I can already sense that he’s a warm, intelligent man and that the plants in his house grow faster than those in my own. But convincing people that positive psychology is not merely the cryptoscience of sunniness—or its featherbrained pursuit—is one of the most persistent challenges he and some of his colleagues, particularly those closely associated with Seligman, face. No longer should we think of ourselves as tin cans of sexual chaos, as echoing caverns of repressed wishes and violent desires; rather, we should think of ourselves as the shining sum of our strengths and virtues, forceful, masters of our fates. All that nattering we’ve been doing in therapists’ armchairs, trying to know and exorcise our darker selves—it’s been misguided. It’s our better selves we want to know.

Peterson, the inventor of the Authentic Happiness Inventory, is clearly aware of how easily these ideas can be trivialized. The afternoon I visit him in Philadelphia, he lingers in his doorway before saying good-bye, telling me he has one final request.

“Harvey Ball,” he says, “was a Massachusetts graphic designer who was commissioned to do an ad for an insurance company. He was paid a whopping $45 for it. Neither he nor the company thought to trademark it. It belongs to the world.”

Interesting, I tell him, though I’m uncertain where this is going.

“He created the yellow smiley face,” he says. “Please don’t use it to illustrate your story.”

To wade into the literature on happiness is to wade into a world of control groups and volunteers, questionnaires and ratings scales, cases of the fortunate and cases of the medically extreme. From Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, I learn about a perverse form of facial paralysis called Moebius syndrome, which makes it impossible for its sufferers to smile; from Stumbling on Happiness, I learn about something called alexithymia, whose literal meaning is “absence of words to describe emotional states.” From many sources, too many to count, I read about a survey of nuns, which showed that those who expressed faith and optimism in their journals were apt to live far longer than those who didn’t. And from Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, I come across the most compelling, persuasive, and revolting study of them all: Two separate groups of men, when given colonoscopies, reported less discomfort if the instrument sat in place for a few seconds after the procedure, even though it prolonged the exam. The reason is that the final moment involved less pain. Apparently, we define and remember our experiences by their highs, lows, and how they end.

Other findings from the emerging field of happiness studies: Married people are happier than those who are not, while people who believe in God are happier than those who don’t. On the former point, Seligman’s book cites a 35,000-person poll from the National Opinion Research Center, in which 40 percent of married Americans described themselves as “very happy,” compared with just 24 percent of unmarried Americans who said the same. (Of course, he allows, happy people may be the ones who get married to begin with.) On the latter point, he cites a study showing that the faithful are less likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, or to kill themselves. The act of worshipping builds community—itself another source of happiness—and belief systems provide structure, meaning, and the promise of relief from pain in this life.

Smarter people aren’t any happier, but those who drink in moderation are. Attractive people are slightly happier than unattractive people. Men aren’t happier than women, though women have more highs and more lows. Surprisingly, the young are not happier than the elderly; in fact, it’s the other way round, with older people reporting slightly higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer dark days.

Money doesn’t buy happiness—or even upgrade despair, as the playwright Richard Greenberg once wrote—once our basic needs are met. In one well-known survey, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois determined that those on the Forbes 100 list in 1995 were only slightly happier than the American public as a whole; in an even more famous study, in 1978, a group of researchers determined that 22 lottery winners were no happier than a control group (leading one of the authors, Philip Brickman, to coin the scarily precise phrase “hedonic treadmill,” the unending hunger for the next acquisition).

As a general rule, human beings adapt quickly to their circumstances because all of us have natural hedonic “set points,” to which our bodies are likely to return, like our weight. This is true whether our experiences are marvelous—like winning the lottery—or shattering. Not only did Brickman and his colleagues look at lottery winners but also at 29 people who’d recently become paraplegic or quadriplegic. It turned out the victims of these accidents reported no more unhappy moments than a control group. (This exceptionally counterintuitive finding, however, has not been replicated in a published paper—and subsequent studies have certainly shown that the loss of a spouse or a child can dramatically depress our happiness thermostats, as can sustained unemployment.)

There’s surprisingly little in the happiness literature about raising children, which in and of itself is odd. Odder still is that most of it suggests children don’t make parents any happier. Gilbert wrote only three scant pages about this in Stumbling on Happiness. But he says he’s been asked about it on his book tour more than almost anything else. “It really violates our intuition,” he says. “Yet every bit of data says children are an extreme source of negative affect, a mild source of negative affect, or none at all. It’s hard to find a study where there’s one net positive.” (One possible explanation, he says, is that children are sources of transcendent moments, and those highs are what people remember.)

Paradoxes abound. Nebraskans think that Californians are happier, but a study done by the Princeton Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman suggests they aren’t. One might expect the homeless of Fresno to be happier than the slum-dwellers of Calcutta, but another study suggests they aren’t (probably because Indians don’t live in social isolation, as our homeless do). In a 2003 poll by the Roper organization, the Danes, the Americans, and the Australians rated themselves the happiest (Australian buoyancy, such an enduring mystery—they’re like an entire nation of people who can’t relate to Chekhov). Other polls have found the Swiss happiest, and the Canadians always do well (hardly a surprise to anyone who knows Canadians). Compared with their purchasing power, Latin and South Americans are much happier than one would imagine, and the Japanese are less so, though being happy in Japan might not be a value per se. And every survey agrees on one point: That the people of Eastern European nations—Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Latvia, Belarus, and Bulgaria—consistently rank themselves the least happy, with Russia coming in especially low. (This might explain my own desolate moods. You can take the girl out of Vladivostok, but you can’t take Vladivostok out of the girl.) Yet people in the happiest countries are more likely to kill themselves.

And no matter where they live, human beings are terrible predictors of what will make them happy. If Stumbling on Happiness tells us anything, it’s this. “Imagination,” says Gilbert, “is the poor man’s wormhole.” Our imagination has an odd knack for Photoshopping things in and airbrushing things out, which is why we think that getting back together with our exes is a good idea; it also tends to mistake our present feelings for future ones, which is why, when we decide to marry the right person, we find it unthinkable we’ll ever be tempted to sleep with anyone else. At the same time, we forget that our imagination has a miraculous ability to rationalize its way out of grim situations—which is why we’re more likely to take a positive view of things we did than things we didn’t (so go ahead and ask that woman to marry you), more comfortable with decisions we can’t reverse than ones we can, and more apt to make the best of a terrible situation than a merely annoying one.

Because our imaginations are limited, we can be disappointed by the things we covet most. But it also means—and this is the gorgeous part—that we’re much more likely to cope well with situations we never thought we’d be able to survive. Perhaps the most profound study Gilbert cites is about the disabled, showing that those who are permanently injured say they’d be willing to pay far less to undo their injuries than able-bodied people say they’d pay to prevent them. It’s possible, as Gilbert notes, that they may even find some silver lining in their experiences, as when the late Christopher Reeve memorably said, “I didn’t appreciate others nearly as much as I do now.”

Like most New Yorkers I know, I can’t imagine living in most other places in the world. My troubles would surely be aggravated, rather than solved, by relocating to Branson. But reading the literature of happiness studies, I can’t help but wonder whether we aren’t all in the grip of some strange false consciousness. From the point of view of the happiness literature, New Yorkers seem to have been mysteriously seduced into a way of life that conspires, in almost every way, against the most basic level of contentment.

The large points first: Most happiness researchers agree that being surrounded by friends and family is one of the most crucial determinants of our well-being. Yet New York, as surprisingly neighborly a city as it is, is still predicated on a certain principle of atomization. Being married would help in this instance, obviously. But New York City’s percentage of unmarried adults is nine points higher than the national average, at 52 percent.

Then there’s the question of the hedonic treadmill, such a demonic little term, so vivid, so apt. Isn’t that what New York, the city of 24-hour gyms, is? More charitably put, one could say that New York is a city of aspirants, the destination people come to to realize dreams. And of course we should feel indebted to the world’s dreamers (and I thank each and every one, for creating jet travel, indoor plumbing, The Simpsons), but there’s a line between heartfelt aspiration and a mindless state of yearning. Darrin McMahon, the author of Happiness: A History, shrewdly points out that the Big Apple is a perfect moniker for the city: “The apple is the cause of the fall of human happiness,” he says. “It’s the symbol of that desire for something more. Even though paradise was paradise, they were still restless.”

Which is where the subtle thesis of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice comes in. He argues, with terrible persuasiveness, that a superabundance of options is not a blessing but a certain recipe for madness. Nowhere do people have more choices than in New York. “New Yorkers should probably be the most unhappy people on the planet,” says Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore. “On every block, there’s a lifetime’s worth of opportunities. And if I’m right, either they won’t be able to choose or they will choose, and they’ll be convinced they chose badly.”

Economists have a term for those who seek out the best options in life. They call them maximizers. And maximizers, in practically every study one can find, are far more miserable than people who are willing to make do (economists call these people satisficers). “My suspicion,” says Schwartz, “is that all this choice creates maximizers.” If that’s the case, New York doesn’t just attract ambitious neurotics; it creates them. It also creates desires for things we don’t need—which, not coincidentally, is the business of Madison Avenue—and, as a corollary, pointless regrets, turning us all into a city of counterfactual historians, men and women who obsessively imagine different and better outcomes for ourselves.

My favorite study in Schwartz’s book was about jam. One weekend, a Columbia University researcher named Sheena Iyengar set out six different kinds in a high-end gourmet store. She invited people to try them, promising them a dollar off any jar they liked. The next weekend, she did the same, but laid out 24 different kinds. More people tried the jam the weekend there were 24, but only 3 percent of the samplers bought any. The weekend there were six jars, by contrast, 30 percent of the samplers bought some.

As I read this, it was hard not to think of New York City dating life. Everyone comes here for the jam. But no one buys it. Then I discover that Iyengar has examined speed dating, too, and similarly found that women who sat at smaller tables of potential mates were inclined to go on second dates 50 percent of the time, but if the group got bigger, they followed up on only a third of the candidates (though the men, curiously, remained content to follow up on 50 percent no matter how big the sample).

Other subtler points: Although many economists agree that money doesn’t make people happy, disparities in income make people miserable, according to most happiness literature. Happiness, in other words, “is less a function of absolute income than of comparative income,” as Gilbert puts it. “Now, if you live in Hallelujah, Arkansas,” he continues, “the odds are good that most of the people you know do something like you do and earn something like you earn and live in houses something like yours. New York, on the other hand, is the most varied, most heterogeneous place on earth. No matter how hard you try, you really can’t avoid walking by restaurants where people drop your monthly rent on a bottle of wine and store windows where shoes sit like museum pieces on gold pedestals. You can’t help but feel trumped. As it were.”

Yet most of us insist that New York is the only place we’d be happy, just as parents insist their children are their greatest sources of joy. Maybe the same phenomenon is at work: New York creates moments of transcendence, and that’s all that matters. Or maybe the belief that New York is the best place on earth is what Gilbert calls a super-replicator—a myth necessary to the flourishing of a culture, just as certain genes are necessary to the flourishing of the species. Gilbert theorized that our beliefs that money and children will make us happy are super-replicators—without them, civilization wouldn’t survive. Modern civilization wouldn’t survive without its large cities, either. (Take that, red states.)

And maybe, too, there’s something to all this abundance, all this aspiring, all this choice. For all its confusions, choice is also a source of hope, and for many of us, hope is itself happiness, whether it’s predicated on truths or illusions. This isn’t the sort of thing that gets borne out in surveys. But it’s the stuff of fantasies, novels—of being human. As Julian Barnes asks in Flaubert’s Parrot, “Isn’t the most reliable form of pleasure . . . the pleasure of anticipation? Who needs to burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic?”

I almost became a professional philosopher,” Martin Seligman says. “I had a fellowship to Oxford. I turned it down.” I’d read this about Seligman. He’s a short man and former high-school outcast who looks a bit like Norman Mailer; today, the day I meet him, he’s wearing a silky Versace shirt of powder blue.

“My education was Wittgensteinian,” he continues. I’d heard this about Seligman too—how fascinated he was by Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous depressive who nevertheless told his landlady as he was dying, Tell them it’s been wonderful. Seligman’s interested in many famous depressives—Lincoln, Oppenheimer. He identifies himself as a depressive, too. “But in retrospect,” he continues, “I think Wittgenstein suborned three generations of philosophy, including mine, by telling us that what we wanted to do was puzzles and that somehow by solving puzzles, problems would get solved. I spent 40 years struggling out of that mode.”

Seligman spent almost as long struggling out of the mode of traditional psychology. Like most psychologists of his generation, he began his career looking not at well-being but pathology. He co-authored the standard abnormal-psychology text that’s used in colleges around the country (for the 101 course of the same name, fondly called “Nuts and Sluts” when I was at school), and he did his most revolutionary work on helplessness in dogs, discovering that those who received electric shocks in a high-walled pen (from which they could not escape) probably wouldn’t try to escape once they were moved to a low-walled pen, even though they could. This phenomenon, which he called “learned helplessness,” earned him an enduring place in the field. It was a heartbreaking, pathbreaking finding, one suggesting how easy it is for living things to become prisoners of their own habits, virtual shut-ins of their own minds.

But today, Seligman is not interested in dogs that lay helpless in their pens. He’s interested in the ones that tried to escape. “Lying awake at night,” he says in his introduction to Authentic Happiness, written in 2002, “you probably ponder, as I have, how to go from plus two to plus seven in your life, not just how to go from minus five to minus three.” Going from minus five to minus three was in fact the goal of Freud, who famously declared that converting “hysterical misery into common unhappiness” was the goal of psychoanalysis. (Woody Allen, similarly, divides life into the miserable and the horrible.) “If you are such a person,” Seligman continues, “you have probably found the field of psychology to be a puzzling disappointment.”

It is Seligman’s contention that psychology’s emphasis on pathology has marginalized the study of well-being. But long before he invented the term positive psychology, men and women were doing research on resilience and functionality. “The indictment of psychology’s entire history in order to make an important place for this movement is a travesty,” says Gilbert. “This movement has enough good things to offer that it does not have to make the case that it is revolutionary.”

What’s even more complicated—and unnerving to many of Seligman’s peers—is that Seligman not only studies happiness for a living but treats it as a goal, and is captain of a cottage industry dedicated to its pursuit. His books Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness were best sellers, found on self-help racks and published in twenty languages; until a year ago, he had a life-coaching concern, in which he trained 1,000 people at a clip in positive-psychology techniques, by conference call (and at $2,000 per head). One of his Websites,, charges subscribers $9.95 per month for his materials, questionnaires, and forums. (“We are so confident that this program will help you, we’ve developed a no-obligation, limited-time offer to try Dr. Seligman’s powerful program for one month free,” the Website assures.)

This is a highly unusual position for a tenured academic—to position oneself as both impartial scientist and impassioned healer, to be the one both in the lab and out on the streets, peddling the cure. It means Seligman hasn’t just started an academic discipline but a movement, and movements, although useful in popularizing ideas, also can trivialize them—and arguably collide with the aims of research.

“In any scientific endeavor,” concedes Seligman, “the big conflict is between what the facts of the matter are and wanting your theory to be right. The only defense against that is to tell the truth and to try to underpromise. And even if you underpromise, people will still call you a guru, and I guess you live with that.”

So can happiness be taught? Literature based on twin studies seems to suggest that roughly 50 percent of our affect is determined by genetics. If you’re like me, a pessimist, that seems like a depressing lot. Optimists, of course, would argue that 50 percent is a lot of room to play with, and that through a combination of acts of will and shifts in fortune, our happiness levels can change substantially. (In fact, happiness researchers frequently use the equation H = S + C + V, or happiness equals our genetic set point plus our circumstances plus what we voluntarily change—a tad too reminiscent, for my taste, of a certain “Far Side” cartoon: “Einstein discovers time actually is money.”)

Seligman is most interested in V. And because he’s a self-identified depressive, or perhaps because he’s a philosopher, his idea of happiness is much more comprehensive than positive emotion. By engaging and cultivating our strengths, he says, and by deploying our virtues, we can lead a fulfilling, meaningful life—a notion not unlike Aristotle’s, who defined happiness as “an activity of the soul that expresses virtue.” He makes the critical distinction between pleasures, which make us feel good, and gratifications, which, oddly, may not involve positive emotions at all, but rather the blunting of them. Eating a Mars Bar is a pleasure; doing something that engages or enhances our strengths is a gratification, whether it’s swimming, welding, or listening to a friend in need. Optimally, when we’re in a state of high gratification, we’re experiencing what Seligman’s colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”), calls flow—a state of total absorption, when time seems to stop and the self deserts us completely.

When Seligman taught his course on positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, he had his students isolate their “signature strengths,” using a test again devised by Peterson, and figure out creative ways to use them daily. He also had his students keep gratitude journals, so that they could keep a nightly record of the people and the experiences they were thankful for. The highlight of the semester, he says, was “gratitude night,” an evening when his students read aloud a long letter to one of the people who meant most to them.

Seligman is a big believer in these techniques. He himself writes gratitude notes and counts his blessings in the evening.

“I’m addicted to it,” he says.

In the last paragraph of The English Patient, Hana, the protagonist, stands alone in her house and, because her hair flies in her eyes, accidentally knocks a glass from the cupboard. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Kip, the man she loves, catches a fork an inch off the ground, similarly brushed off the dinner table by his daughter. Some of us are Hanas. Some of us are Kips. My friend Sarah is a Kip. When the two of us went to Guatemala together, I couldn’t get over the karma she brought along—never in my life have I traveled with so few wrinkles, so few glitches. I left her side for only 40 minutes that trip. In those 40 minutes, I was harassed by a policeman and shat on by a pigeon.

I am a Hana. I’m convinced that if I didn’t work for my luck, I wouldn’t have any at all, and would instead be borne backward on a conveyor belt, the sort who always watched her candy bars get stuck in the vending machine and got Canadian pennies for change. It is entirely irrational, this feeling, one that flies in the face of every objective data point in my life. Yet I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember. How small we are when our minds develop minds of their own.

I went to see Carol Kauffman because I was curious about the techniques of positive psychology, curious whether a person like her could make a person like me feel less like a person like Hana. Kauffman is a positive-psychology coach who has an office in Arlington, Massachusetts, near Harvard, where she works as an assistant clinical professor at McLean Hospital. She has clients all over the world, from L.A. to São Paolo, many of whom she consults by phone (“High-level people often don’t have time to drive”).

My first consultation with Kauffman was on the phone. She assured me that her approach was eclectic and admitted outright I might not be the best candidate for this kind of thing. So she proposed, as a modest goal, that we aim only to find ways that “would put one or two more positive moments in your day.” Her goal, she said, was to reverse my focus every once in a while, to “find pockets where you did things right, where you might have actually been using a strength.”

It was a lovely idea and, as it turns out, a bit ambitious. In our next phone conversation, she asked what I’d done right since we spoke. A long, sitcomlike silence followed. I’m sorry? I couldn’t think of a thing, including paying a long-overdue cable bill—and the next thing I knew, I was silently checking the television to see if it was working. It wasn’t. Shit.

I don’t want to trivialize Kauffman’s skills or my commitment to this quixotic enterprise. When I met her for our third session, it was in her Arlington office—an office not unlike a shrink’s, with an Oriental rug and Indian artifacts—and I quite liked her style, though I winced when she used the word empower for the third or fourth time (“I’m a positive-psychology nag,” she explained). We didn’t discuss my parents, my boyfriend, or any of the usual psychoanalytic staples. What we discussed, instead, was how to plan on making my days a bit nicer—something a person like me actually has to plan. She occasionally stopped me mid-sentence to show how my mind worked. A good deal of the hour, in fact, became a discussion about the bum habits of my mind, and how to stop it from always circling back to the blacker things, like a tongue running obsessively over a sore tooth.

It occurred to me later that what we were doing was quite literally the opposite of psychoanalysis. Instead of encouraging patients to reenact their habits through transference, she was crudely modeling a new way to think and behave. She acknowledged, again, that I was a hard case. “But anything you practice sets up a memory trail,” she said, “whether it’s a golf swing or a piano piece.”

I spent the day feeling great. It didn’t last, of course. It may just be a matter of practicing my golf swing—I have no idea how I’d feel if I spent a year chatting with her on the phone, trying to change my thinking habits. Three sessions is hardly enough to tell. My sense is that it’s a crapshoot, an art more than a science—like any talking cure.

When I came home the next day, I found an e-mail from Ben-Shahar, the teacher of the Harvard course. I’d written him first, mentioning I’d ordered Samuel Smiles’s book, Self-Help, now an Oxford Classic. His reply was brief, and it was perhaps the only time in my life I’ve laughed at the use of an emoticon: You’ll enjoy Smiles :)

Like every religion, movement, and interesting idea, positive psychology has its own creation myth. One day, says Seligman, his daughter Nikki took him to task for scolding her while he was working in his garden, when it was clear she’d done little to annoy him. She reminded him that she’d given up whining on her 5th birthday, and it was the hardest thing she’d ever done; he, on the other hand, remained a grouch. That was the day, Seligman says, that he realized two things: First, he had to change, and second, raising children didn’t just mean correcting their failings but isolating and nurturing their strengths.

It makes sense that a man like Seligman would come to this conclusion. He has tremendous faith in the power of human agency. During our interview, he describes himself as a “launcher of ships” and an “intellectual entrepreneur.” He knows lots of people, moves around in high places; in the course of our conversation, he refers to Jeffrey Epstein, a money manager and close friend of Bill Clinton’s, as “Jeffrey,” and talks about going swimming with Michael Crichton. His desk at work has two computer screens to maximize his efficiency, and at home, he has four. When we get to the subject of Methodism, he waxes rhapsodic: “I think what Methodism did is take this terrifically important premise, which is that we can participate in our own grace. That we can do things to be better people.”

But is change something that can come about by a simple act of will? Agency requires start-up energy, something depressives aren’t necessarily going to have if they’ve spent their time rattling around a bell jar. I mention this to him.

“I have to fight to get up in the morning, too.”

I ask when he wakes up.

“Between six and nine. If I could, I’d stay in bed until nine, but usually I’m up at six or six-thirty.”

Seligman’s an interesting standard-bearer for his cause. He’s thoroughly engaged with the world, a huge success, and an extremely generous and creative conversationalist. But managing anger seems like a key part of managing depression, and so does maintaining a healthy sense of proportion about one’s own needs. At some point, I ask whether his kids from his first marriage feel robbed, because he had his epiphany about changing his own behavior during his second marriage. Did he ever write them notes of apology or explanation? Something along the lines of his gratitude letter?

There are about eight seconds of silence. “No, we’ve never really talked about it. Huh. That’s a good idea. There’s no reason not to . . . ”

Well, there’s no reason to do it, either, I say, if it’s not something you feel particularly guilty about . . .

“Well, my first wife and I made this agreement that we would not bad-mouth each other, which she violated from day one, but I never did. And a real conversation with my kids about it would involve some bad-mouthing of her.”

Why would a conversation about your regrets as a father involve bad-mouthing your ex-wife?

“I don’t have regrets,” he says. “I would choose to do the same thing. That was the time of my life in which I needed to do my work, the foundation, and I would do it again. And it just happened they were victims of that. No, it’d be a conversation much more about what the marriage and the child-rearing was like and how we felt about each other.”

Even if you don’t have regrets, you can feel bad, I say.

“Yes. I feel bad. But I would do it the same way. I was married to my work, and I should have been married to my work.”

A launcher of ships.

Philip Brickman, the man who did the famous lottery study, was also a launcher of ships—or at least a launcher of careers, a mentor to many. In his work, he focused a lot on happiness and what it took to achieve it. He was creative, collegial, a nurturer; his obituary mentions that one of his favorite topics of discussion was what constituted “the perfect day.” On May 13, 1982, when he was 38 years old, he climbed to the roof of the tallest building in Ann Arbor and jumped. His colleagues were stunned. There’s an untold distance between knowing happiness and knowing about it. And sometimes, to our blinking incomprehension, that distance can only be measured in the space between this life and the next.

“There’s no credible evidence that dispositional optimism is changeable,” says Julie Norem, a Wellesley professor and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Norem is one of the more outspoken critics of the positive-psychology movement. “And the research shows that it’s dispositional optimism that makes your life better,” she continues. “So if it’s not clear you can change this kind of disposition, it’s not especially useful to tell people about it.”

Norem is a researcher. One of her most interesting studies involved giving anagrams to solve to both optimists and pessimists, first listening to Mozart, then listening to a dirge. The pessimists did better when they were listening to the dirge. “I’ve come to think of them as the French,” she says. She has also given them a name: “defensive pessimists.”

Another very vivid critic of the positive-psychology movement is Barbara Held, author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching.She’s more of a culture critic. She detects a certain high-handed moralism in Seligman’s work—a presumption that happiness is itself virtuous. “Can Seligman’s claim that virtuous action produces well-being be tested scientifically?” she asked during a 2003 positive-psychology conference, at which both she and Norem were asked to speak. Unlike Harvey Ball, who forgot to trademark the yellow smiley face, Held trademarked the yellow smiley face with a slash running through it. She made Seligman wear a T-shirt with it throughout her talk.

Until extremely recently, happiness wasn’t even a value, much less an inalienable right. Instead, it was something one got to experience only in death, after leading a virtuous, and often self-denying, life. As McMahon points out in Happiness: A History, the words for happiness in both ancient Greek—eudaimonia—and every Indo-European language include, at the root, a cognate for “luck.” In English, it’s happ, or chance—as in happenstance, haphazard, perhaps. The implication is that being happy means being lucky. And luck is not something we can entirely will.

“Happiness is fine as a side effect,” says Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst and lay philosopher whose latest work, Going Sane, examines functionality and well-being, but from a much more literary and ruminative perspective. “It’s something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism.”

Unlike Seligman, Phillips declares happiness “the most conformist of moral aims.” “For me,” he continues, “there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing—the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.

“It seems to me that if you were to take a rather stringent line here,” concludes Phillips, “then anyone who could maintain a state of happiness, given the state of the world, is living in a delusion.”

Funny he should mention this: One of the most interesting bits of American research to surface—repeatedly—in books about happiness is a study that shows depressives are far more likely to be realists, while happy people are more likely to walk around in a mild state of delusion. The study itself was fairly simple: A group of undergraduates was given varying degrees of control over turning on a green light. Some members of the group had perfect control; others had none—the light went on and off of its own accord. The depressives accurately predicted, in each instance, whether they were in control of the situation or not. The nondepressives, on the other hand, thought they had control about 35 percent of the time over the situation in which they were, in fact, 100 percent helpless.

To me, this study more or less explains our current president—sunny and optimistic and full of faith, certainly, but not quite able to see the world as it is. After I read it, I couldn’t help but think that a different man, a slightly more pessimistic man, may have been less inclined to believe that Iraq could be conquered, subdued, and rebuilt as a flourishing democracy with just 150,000 troops.d

I mention this to Seligman. He declines to discuss Bush specifically, but says that he and his colleagues have analyzed political speeches before and discovered that although more optimistic candidates are likely to win presidential elections, it was the presidents who gave the most pessimistic inaugural speeches who went down in history as being great. “You have to be optimistic enough to get voters to vote for you,” he says, “but you have to be pessimistic enough to do serious, great stuff.”

At this moment, it doesn’t occur to me to stop Seligman and ask him to further explain this observation. But later, as I listen to our discussion on tape, the implication seems clear: Even the director of the Positive Psychology Center associates pessimism with seriousness and greatness. He sounds as divided about the question as his critics. It’s a conundrum, certainly. A psychoanalyst might even call him conflicted.