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What I Learned After Trying to Pursue Happiness at Boston’s ‘Happy Place’

Happy Place Image
Happy Place is an Instagram-centric pop up exhibit that will be in Boston until June 2019.

Picture this: a bleak, gray, empty leasing space — a consequence of the retail apocalypse — that has been repurposed to house a glitzy, colorful setup with larger-than-life props, designed solely as a backdrop for people to take pictures of themselves. It’s being marketed as a space to “capture your happy,” where patrons can buy seemingly perfect snapshots of themselves in a idyllic-looking world — pictures that they can later post on social media to advertise themselves as a fun-loving person with a happy, colorful life that you should also covet.

Is this the premise of an episode from the next season of “Black Mirror”? Nope. It’s actually Happy Place, a pop-up exhibit on Boston’s Boylston Street that boasts well-lit and colorful rooms filled with giant cookies, confetti, and gumball machines. A lemonade stand evokes nostalgia. Ebullient songs like Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Biscuits” blare on surround-sound speakers to set the perfect mood for picture-taking orgies. And it’s all supposedly for the sake of making people happy.

With such a lofty mission statement, you might wonder how exactly Happy Place intends to achieve this goal. In the selfie-centric labyrinth of perfect lighting and charming props, it seems that Happy Place doesn’t necessarily allow you to feel happy. Instead, it limits you to create a facade of happiness — to merely look happy. And in an ironic twist, when only the latter is pursued, it’s more difficult to achieve the former.

A journey through Happy Place feels almost like a safari, in which you make a pit stop in every room to get a snapshot of the main attraction. Yet, what’s actually in the rooms is reduced to just being the background. The patrons’ strained smiles and seemingly carefree yet carefully planned poses are the true centerpieces of each image, and the props and lighting contribute to making the feigned happiness convincing. But even then, the only reason why the props can achieve this transcendence is because the inevitable imperfections of the exhibit — dinged-up walls, visible overhead vents and pipes, shades of industrial concrete gray — are deliberately filtered and cropped out of photos, as these blemishes would tarnish the pretense of happiness that visitors seek to portray.

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There exists a palpable pressure on Happy Place’s visitors to ensure that the photos of themselves in front of eye-catching backdrops are something worth looking at. After the camera shutters close, smiles evaporate into cookie-scented air and heads quickly become glued to phones and cameras, thoroughly evaluating how well the pictures turned out — a testament to how this installation possesses little meaning in its own right. It’s up to patrons to fabricate a version of themselves that makes the allure of the space believable in order to garner likes from followers.

Happy Place is somewhat of a misnomer: It conflates genuine happiness with pictures that seem to convey it. The emphasis placed on appearing happy reflects the way in which creating a carefully curated, personal brand of happiness on social media has superseded the desire to find a more internal and less circumstantial notion of contentment that’s not intended to be on display.

At the end of the day, Happy Place is just an Instagrammable gold mine. So why should we be compelled to feel that places to take interesting-looking photos are to be equated with places of happiness? Just as you wouldn’t go to portrait studios thinking that you’re going to be much happier after, you also should not expect to leave Happy Place with a sense of fulfillment. It serves its purpose as a backdrop for Instagram photos, but falls short of its brightly advertised promises.

Even though taking photos at Happy Place is not a guarantee of happiness, it has certainly been designed to be irresistible. I, too, fell victim to the allure of the duck-filled wall that borders a bright yellow bathtub, and left with a few pictures myself. But you don’t leave with the more abstract things that are conducive to what makes our lives worth living, like moments of visceral understanding, meaningful conversations, and unstaged but joyful laughs with friends. The novelty of Happy Place is undoubtedly enticing, but ultimately unfulfilling.

And so I left Happy Place not feeling significantly happier, and with a little less storage on my phone from the photos that I would post to the ’gram later on. I shared a smiling bathtub image, and an amusing shot of someone’s sad-looking spilled Happy Place-branded M&M’s juxtaposed against a wall that showed the wear of daily visitors. This creative choice may have cost me some likes — but after spending an hour in a space dedicated to simulating perpetual happiness, sharing the nuances and imperfections of what’s real felt more satisfying than trying to portray a staged idyllic moment.

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