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Learning to Be Happy, Part 2
Little pressure here: our humanity depends on it

by DK Holland

Our hands are our first teachers: We engage them in all kinds of ways from infancy. And by twelve, we know what we want to be; in many ways, we are led by what our hands have taught us. The youth-led DIY handmade movement has given birth to new outlets, a creative revolt from the stifling rigidity of the monitor and keyboard: Etsy, Regretsy,, and Maker Faire all celebrate the making of things by hand. We are happy to see what has been made by others and even happier when we make things ourselves. With all that can be cold and hard in its mass production, the one-of-a-kind-ness of handmade warms the cockles of our hearts. It makes us smile. We are back in the cave, with our early ancestors, making bison skin booties for the little ones.

Skyler Balbus, while a communication design graduate student at Pratt, said, “Sewing, knitting, soap-making and baking are among other so-called domestic arts being revived by a generation who know Title IX but not Home Economics, and who are tech-savvy enough to take their questions and skills to the Internet.”

Beth Ferguson founder of Sol Design Lab4 in Austin, Texas, makes public art that solves urban problems by crafting together recyclables. She is making her name by perfecting the art of the solar pump charging station. Micro-financed by SXSW, which calls her its “carbon offset,” Ferguson makes stations for schools, parks, conferences and, of course, SXSW festivals. Living in a collective where the rent is cheap and the community rich, Ferguson is grappling with ways to develop creative energy solutions for less privileged areas. She says, for example, “Texas Colonias (Spanish for colony) is an illegally subdivided community of 3,500 neighborhoods (400,000 people) with no utilities. People barely had enough to build their homes—extension cords run all over the place using expensive, polluting diesel generators. Solar could provide solutions for them. Texas A&M is employing high school students to come up with solutions. These kids are developing a business plan, wearing suits and ties, and they are in the most troubled high school in Austin.” Everyone is struggling in Texas where huge wild fires raged for weeks in a year of very serious drought. “Ranchers come up and hug me. Ranchers!” She says, “They really appreciate the need for creative solutions to our energy issues.”

The world is full of problems seeking creative solutions now and for many, project-based learning is the way to go. We are evolving so quickly: Look at all the technologies we have discarded—watches, newspapers, snail mail, land lines, tape recorders, still cameras, video cameras, note books, pens, typewriters, movie theaters—and that’s just what has been replaced by one little smartphone. And it was a project-based team that designed and built it. Ferguson adds, “People need to know how to make things, how things work so we can create the tools we need for tomorrow.” Regardless of our engineering abilities, we need to know how the world works. Where our food and energy come from. How to fix a bike, use a sewing machine, understand the principles of basic plumbing. We used to have courses like Physical Education, Art, Shop, Home Economics in grade school, all of which employ our hands, heads and the full range of our senses. Holistic learning. Not knowing our relationship to the world leads to disorientation, adds to our overall agita. We are unhappy when we are disconnected.

“We’re the only species that knows we're going to die someday and so much is driven by that knowledge,” filmmaker Tiffany Shlain says, paraphrasing her father Leonard Shlain. Her mother would say, “Emotional connection drives what we do.” With these two statements, the elder Shlains articulate a balance of science and spirit: Their daughter, a harmonious marriage of these two mindsets asks, “We humans have accumulated so much knowledge. Why do we have such a problem seeing the bigger picture?” She attributes this disconnect largely to “left hemisphere thinking,” which tends to isolate, classify, analyze, theorize and test. She says, “This is called science and tends to use language-based knowledge.” Her documentary, Connected5, posits that when Homo sapiens grew to think of ourselves as independent and separate from all other species, we denied our connectedness. Our thinking tilted to the left (scientific) brain, ignoring and devaluing the right (intuitive) brain. We have so many lessons to learn from nature: Every bee contributes to the survival of the colony. No bee can survive on its own.

On October 30, 2011 our human bee colony reached seven billion. At least two billion of us are now on the Internet. And that’s good news: We have started to explore complex natural, social and scientific systems to solve problems holistically6. It’s no coincidence that we are doing this at the same time we witness the world’s profound needs, up close and in real time (including, how do seven billion people get fed). All this is opening up the possibility that we, unlike our early ancestors, can adapt more rapidly to economic, social and environmental swings, to learn to grasp the big picture within amorphous conditions, to get the gist of it, and come up with important creative, sustainable solutions as our priorities shift.

In seeing a person’s face up close, we know what that person is feeling. And in watching them, we start to feel it ourselves. Tiny babies can do this. This is called mirror imaging and releases hits of pleasure—oxycodone—in our brains. Fear subsides. Love increases. Various activities give us this same chemical response: e-mailing, surfing, sharing and swapping information, video gaming, as well as intimate physical contact with that special someone and, of course, drugs. We want to do things more and more often that give us pleasure, reduce anxiety. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has brought back direct democracy through exactly this kind of up close and personal engagement. It is a brain chemistry love fest. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.