National Design Policy
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Delusional happiness and creativity

In this past weekend's NYTimes book review, there was a review of Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. The premise of the book is that people are unhappy because (1) we don't want the things that make us happy and (2) the things we think we want (more money, cars, and fame) don't actually make us happy. This is because we (human beings) are delusional; we imagine mistaken futures, regardless of what our experience tells us (ex.  I will be more beautiful if I have a red sports car with leather seats.)

What fascinates me about this argument is that imagining the future is the primary act of creativity. In my class on Design Anthropology that I taught in 2004, we had a section on the origin of creativity. The argument of some scholars, like Dr. llona Roth and those of The Imaginative Minds: an Interdisciplinary Symposium, is that the emergence of creativity is tied to the ability of humans to imagine a future:

A number of researchers have identified the period between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago as a further crucial evolutionary stage, coinciding with a significant increase in brain size. By this time early humans had developed the capacity to live in complex social groups. The ability to imagine the possible outcomes of different actions, or the possible responses of peers would give these early humans the selective advantage of control over physical and social environment, uncompromised by expenditure of energy in physically enacting and evaluating alternative outcomes. Robert Foley has recently described this emergent capacity as ‘what if?’ reasoning, emphasising its role in enabling individuals to consider and decide between hypothetical actions and future events. Mithen (1998) and others have emphasised the central role of theory of mind - the capacity to understand (imagine) the thoughts, intentions and behaviour of fellow humans- in providing for communication and co-operation between group members.

This leads me to the question of the interplays of research and design. As creative thinkers, designers do excel at developing "What if?" scenarios. Yet sometimes designers forget that others can excel at "What if?" scenarios. I ran into this a bit with my graphic design students this fall who believed that since I did not study design that I had nothing to say about their creative process.

There is also a designers' preference for creative thinking without the interference of  the "experience" of others. This varies ,of course, across design fields. I find graphic designers resent interference the most. Industrial and experience designers resent it less. Part of this I think has to do with the perceived complexity of the problem (i.e. designers want the assistance of research when it can beef up their confidence).

Yet, the real fights I've seen or participated in with designers has had to do with a researcher "quashing" their what if scenarios with small doses of experience (i.e. reality). Yet, the purpose of research is to help ensure that the imagining of the future is not a mistaken one.

So cynically, I wonder who is actually happier, anthropological researchers or designers? It seems that almost every religion says that to minimize one's delusions is to maximize one's happiness. But then again, how do you change the future if you're not a little delusional?


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