The Cult of Enthusiasm

We live in age of overwhelming optimism.  Everyone’s life is maical, and every experience awesome. You can’t buy cereal without being promised a soul uplifting and life affirming spiritual experience of purest joy. And yet, people are unhappy. Why is this?

Optimists are right in being wary of negativity. Most negativity simply hides fear, it creates barriers where there are none, making sure we don’t try something because it can’t be done or because what would people think? Negativity is a sneaky way for us to make ourselves victims. Pessimism is useless, we should never be victims.

But at the other end of the spectrum is the almost maniacal optimist. The person who’s so enthusiastic at all times it’s is simply beyond reason.  Well, what’s wrong with that?

Forcing enthusiasm has two major issues, as the journalist Oliver Burkeman outlines in his excellent best seller The Antidote.

Fail at Life

Firstly it sets you up to fail. How we talk to ourselves about things has a very real influence on how we feel. It sets expectations on the situations we find ourselves in, and life will simply never be a barrage of awesome and amazing experiences. It can not be, because the human mind isn’t made to handle that. It would simply stop registering the good things. How many times have you been reminded to count your blessings, only to realize life isn’t so bad? By expecting daily life to be amazing, we’ll constantly face being let down or surrounded by haters. Not because the world is actually like that, but because we‘ve created an impossible expectation. 

Use it or lose it

Secondly it seems we actually lose the ability to experience real joy and happiness when we’re constantly forcing the simulacrum of those emotions. According to burkeman “fake it til you make it” is not just incorrect, but is actually the opposite of how your mind is built to work.  Counter-intuitively looking at things from a negative point of view, a bit sceptically or even critically, you’ll set yourself up to be positively surprised often. And prepared for the situations when you’re not. 

We should never limit ourselves with artificial barriers of negativity and fear. But if we want to experience real happiness, we also shouldn’t buy into the cult of enthusiasm. Don’t force enthusiasm, look critically at the world and enjoy the ride. 

The definition of Bad Design

Stupid sign hides stupid design I took this picture of a door in my office. It has two handles. The top large green one is for emergencies only, and people have apparently been using it. To solve the problem, a large sign has been taped to the handle bearing the legend:

"Do not use this door handle unless it's emergency situation"

Problem solved. Anyone can see that there's something wrong here. But let's boil it down:

The handle problem

If the handle is not to be used, placing it above the normal handle, making it larger and green is probably a bad idea. In fact, it's the exact opposite of what you're supposed to do according to various studies on cognitive processes, visual recognition and psychology. Of course, this design is made for emergencies only and for such is pretty good.

The normal handle below the emergancy handle requires the user to touch a button on the wall first in order to open the door. The additional step of course makes it less useable, but the really interesting design choice here is WHY THE F why in the world one of the handles require a button on the wall and the other does not... The result is the same so there is no difference to the user. Couldn't the second handle also be used by just, you know, pushing it? And while we're at it, why not just have one handle from the start? It would be much more cost effective.

The sign problem

The sign is another great feat of design. First of all it obscures the handle. Rendering it useless in an emergency situation. But since the sign is well fastened and laminated with hard plastic you wouldn't be able to use it even if you knew where it was.

Smart people were involved in every step of this process. But noone looked at the overall intended function, nor the users intended use. Not one. This is why you need designers.