The world, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is not a happy place.
This is painfully evident in Downtown Los Angeles, recently revitalized (read: they opened an Urban Outfitters) yet still teeming with human misery (the homeless population of Downtown's Skid Row increased by 20 percent last year, and a recent report found that at night, there are only nine public toilets available to the 1,800 people who live there).
Recently, while walking down Fourth Street at noon on a weekday, I was accosted by a vagrant carrying a jug of what appeared to be urine. He sneered that he could smell me through my jeans. It did not make me happy.
Mere paces away, an artfully bearded fashion victim wearing an ostentatious hat smoked a cigar while sitting in the gutter across from Urth Caffé, a local chain that specializes in "exclusively organic coffees" and $13 salads. It was now my turn to sneer, and I did so with aplomb as I watched him snap selfie after selfie. It, too, did not make me happy.
Ah, but sweet relief from these joykills was sure to come soon. I was en route to the Happy Place, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in the Arts District that a targeted Facebook ad had promised me was “filled with one-of-a-kind installations and multi-sensory rooms guaranteed to put a smile on [my] face” for the price of $28.50 (or $199 for the VIP package). There, I would be able to “climb a giant birthday cake, dance in the world’s LARGEST confetti dome, and jump off a larger than life rainbow into a pot of happiness.”
"Installation"-based entertainment experiences, designed for no other reason than to be documented on social media, are the antithesis of my shit. I, however, appear to be in the minority when it comes to that view. The overwhelming success of pop-up experiences like Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream—both of which have managed to sell out of tickets at their San Francisco locations—prove people are willing to pay upward of $200 to roll around in confetti and have their photo taken before walls of rubber ducks. Maryellis Bunn, the founder of the Museum of Ice Cream, believes pop-ups like hers will be the future of entertainment. “Our generation doesn’t want to spend six hours doing anything,” she said in a recent New York Magazine profile. “I love Disneyland, but it’s just not… it’s not for today.”
“Leave all sadness behind,” an introductory video informed me as I stepped through the Happy Place's brightly colored entryway. The Happy Place, you see, is a world of “no sadness, no worries, no tears,” it told me. I was encouraged to hit up the food truck (“Rainbow grilled cheese!”) and take “LOTS of photos.”
A Happy Place employee vouched for the rainbow grilled cheese, declaring it as delicious as it was ‘grammable. “It’s on this hybrid croissant gluten free bread that you can only get in China and here, apparently,” she raved. “We were playing with it for a photo op yesterday.”
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I was drawn to the Happy Place because I had become fascinated by a video on its website in which a bootleg version of the Zoloft ball sadly trudges alone through a black and white dystopia. Frowning, it stares at its own glum visage via the front-facing camera of its phone. But its expression changes from misery to curiosity when a yellow balloon emerges from the bottom of the camera’s frame.
The balloon leads the ball to the Happy Place, where its frown is turned upside down by the ability to take selfies in front of decorative backdrops. There, it finds itself surrounded by other bootleg Zoloft balls, all of which stare into the front-facing cameras of their phones. They are still alone, but they are alone together.
After walking down a hallway dominated by a neon sign that read “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” I reached the Happy Place’s first photo op, a seven-foot-tall high heel made of 200,000 M&Ms. An employee in the corner stood behind a table filled with small plastic cups of branded M&Ms. He was far from the only person peddling empty calories in the “experience.” Cake pops, lemonade, and popsicles were also on offer, which would explain why the child ahead of me, who was being copiously documented by his mother, was bouncing off the walls. “Baby, do it again!” she implored him after he climbed out of a trough filled with plastic confetti. He refused, wanting instead to enter the geodesic dome filled with plastic confetti. “We’re gonna jump in that giant ball pit first,” she told him. “I don’t WANNA,” he irately replied.
In the Happy Place, there is a room filled with artificial flowers, an enormous model of a birthday cake, and a rainbow that leads to the aforementioned “Pot of Happiness” filled with branded coins. “Would you like to jump into a giant pile of happiness?” an employee asked me. “Oh, Christ, I don’t think I’m emotionally capable of that,” I replied.
There are stages filled with rubber ducks and light boxes that say “Live Laugh Love.” I find it hard to believe anyone would pay $30 solely for the ability to stand in front of these things, but I’ve been wrong before.
With the exception of the child and his mother, and a handful of women I assumed were social media “tastemakers,” I wandered alone through the Happy Place during a press preview before its official launch. The rooms, when not in use, were suffused with a haunting quality. Its particle board sets were starkly lit under fluorescent lights, their eeriness reminiscent of the isolation of living one’s life online. Standing in a room where furniture was bolted to the ceiling while listening to “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga at a decibel level that could best be described as “nauseating,” I found myself filled with ineffable sadness.
“Celebrate Everyday,” giant gold letters read in the "birthday room." Significantly, they had used the adjective “everyday," meaning commonplace, rather than the adverb "every day," meaning daily.
In the Happy Place’s final room, I watched a woman retake a selfie over and over again in a well-lit photo booth in a “garden” of faux flowers. “Should I take another one?” she asked her friend. “Should I take another one? I’m gonna do one more.”
“Sorry,” she told me, noticing my gaze. “Twenty-five takes to get the one right shot.” I joylessly took my own selfie in the garden and made my exit onto an astro-turfed alleyway across from an indoor gun range bustling with activity. Happiness, I suppose, comes wherever you can find it.
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