the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Happiness and Gumballs


It was the day before the annual BlogHer conference in Chicago.   JC and I made plans to stroll down Michigan Avenue and explore the city.  If you don’t know JC Little (The Animated Woman), take a look at her delightful and somewhat repulsive presentation about pinworms at the Voices of the Year ceremony.  She’s my kind of person.


During our walk, we found ourselves in the architecturally-interesting Chicago Cultural Center, and noticed that there was an art show on the fourth floor gallery.  It was titled “The Happy Show” and the installation was by Stefan Sagmeister, a prominent designer from New York.

The Happy Show offers visitors the experience of walking into the designer’s mind as he attempts to increase his happiness via meditation, cognitive therapy and mood-altering pharmaceuticals. “I am usually rather bored with definitions,” Sagmeister says. “Happiness, however, is just such a big subject that it might be worth a try to pin it down.” Centered around the designer’s ten-year exploration of happiness, this exhibition presents typographic investigations of a series of maxims, or rules to live by, originally culled from Sagmeister’s diary, manifested in a variety of imaginative and interactive forms.  — from the city of Chicago website.

The exhibit was fantastic, and we spent over an hour enjoying the unique infographics and interactive displays, all relating the concept of happiness.


The most provocative art piece was Sagmeister’s attempt to show a graphical representation  of the happiness of the visitors to the show.  He did this based on the amount of gumballs that were taken from a row of ten old-fashioned gumball machines standing against the wall, numbered from 1-10, each machine signifying one higher level of individual happiness.

I thought about my level of personal happiness before I approached the gumball machines. I decided that I was relatively happy.  Even with some bumps in the proverbial road, I had my health, good friends, my hair, and I wasn’t bored yet with my existence.  I took a gumball from machine #7.  That put me in the top 25% of happiness.

As I put the gumball into my mouth, JC said, “That’s bad for your teeth.”

I laughed.  It’s the little joys of life that enable a person to be happy.

“It’s your turn,” I said, almost a dare.

JC walked to the row of gumball machines and turned the handle of machine #10.  A bright yellow gumball dropped out.


“#10?” I shouted, rather stunned.

Maybe she was confused by the instructions.  She was Canadian, after all.

“You realize that #10 means #10 in happiness.” I mansplained.

“I know,” she said.

I left it at that, but by the time we were back on the street, at “the Bean” in Grant Park, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.  Her choice had annoyed me.


“How can you put yourself as #10 in happy?” I pushed again.

“Because I’m happy.”

“That’s great.  I’m glad you’re happy.  But #10 happy?  What about #9 happy?  Then you would have something to look forward to!”

“I think you can be #10 happy all the time, if you are happy at the moment.”

“Are you saying that nothing bad has ever happened to you?  No one you cared about ever got sick or went bankrupt?”

“Of course bad things happen.  I can be upset, but still happy and content.”

“This makes no LOGICAL SENSE.  #10 means the IDEAL.  The Platonic ideal.  Heaven is #10.  No one ever gets to be #10 in this world.  If I thought I was #10 in happiness, I would just kill myself because it’s all downhill.”

“That’s because we have different views of happiness.”


Two days later, I met JC during one of the keynotes.  It was the day after her presentation at the Voices of the Year.

“You were great last night,” I said.

“Thank you.”

“Anyway, enough about that.  Have you changed your mind about what number happy you are?”

“Are you still obsessing over this?”

“Are you feeling #10 right now?”


“Ok, let’s make up a hypothetical situation.  Imagine, last night your presentation was a total disaster.  Everything went wrong.”

“Nice.  OK.”

“The microphone didn’t work.  The crowd was booing.  Today, you’re being ostracized by everyone you know.”

“Are they throwing things at me?”



“So, what number happiness are you now?”



“Like I told you ten times before.  I can be upset.  But still happy.  Because I know who I am.”

“OK, what if your pants fell down during your presentation last night, and you weren’t wearing any underwear and everyone saw your privates?  What then?  How would you feel today?”

“That would be quite memorable.  It would probably make me more happy.”

“Aha, GOTCHA!  You are already #10!  You can’t become MORE HAPPY!”

It’s been a month since BlogHer.  Last night, I had a dream.  I was standing in front of the row of gumballs in Chicago, ready to make another choice.  I gazed at the yellow balls of sugary gum enclosed in reflective glass tubes, and then I went for it.  But this time, rather than taking a gumball from machine #7, I turned the lever of machine #6.


  1. The Animated Woman

    Tch Neil. I didn’t actually get any gum because #10 wasn’t working. And neither was #1. Both, interestingly had the most gumballs missing. Was it fixed?

    Somehow reading this here makes me even happier than ever. Stefan Sagmeister has obviously never seen Spinal Tap.

  2. Neil

    I remember that #10 wasn’t working. But it somehow ruined the story, so I glossed over that fact.

    • The Animated Woman

      I agree it makes the story better. I’m just bummed I didn’t get any gum…! Punishment for daring to define happiness…do you think the artist purposely made #1 and #10 dysfunctional?

      I liked hanging out with you.

  3. Ren

    I expect the #1 set is also low due to the lack of clarity in the instructions. Missing, is the typical condescending-sounding-but-likely-necessary “where 1 is the lowest level of happiness and 10 is the highest”.

    Or, it is rigged.

  4. Jasmine

    I think #1 and #10 were broken on purpose. And so is your view of being happy at a #10, because otherwise you might not be the awesome writer you are 😉

  5. Kizz

    I would have had exactly the same reaction but I wouldn’t have been able to keep asking her.

  6. Ann

    I love JC’s outlook on happiness. And your photos, Neil.

  7. sarah gilbert

    I would never go for #10… even though I consider myself very happy! And I bet, too, that #1 and #10 were broken on purpose. I wonder if some people then move over to the second-most-accurate.

    • The Animated Woman

      Do you know what? It didn’t feel right for me to settle for a less accurate gumball. And so I went gumball-less….but I didn’t rot my teeth like Neil, so there’s that 😀

  8. Mandy

    I love that JC is happy. I also love that she would have been happier if her pants fell down. When funny/weird stuff like that happens to me it’s a seratonin (sp?) boost.

    But like you Neil, I would have reacted similarly with one of my friends in that situation. I’m not sure if I’ve ever reached a 10. Every time I go to therapy my Dr. asks me to rank my depression and anxiety levels. Depression is typically a 3 unless I’ve had a bad week and anxiety is usually a 5 or 6 (probably b/c I’m anxious that I have to tell how anxious I am). So if I average the numbers, I guess I stay at about 6.5 happy. For me 9 or 10 happy would have to be the result of something insanely awesome that I can’t even fathom happening.

    I love the photography in this post too. It looks like it was a pretty awesome exhibit.

  9. Rene Foran

    #5 was giving double gumballs

  10. Jennifer

    I have different views of this happiness thing.

    I do not believe we should aim for living in happiness all the time. I feel that contentment is our baseline with happiness living above and unhappiness living below. You dip into both extremes throughout your day, your life. But to live in either extreme all the time is not possible, nor beneficial. Aim for contentment. The other two will come with it.

    • The Animated Woman

      ‘Aiming’ for happiness all the time would feel insincere. I wonder if I aim at all…I definitely don’t walk around with a smile plastered on my face all the time. Just ask my kids.

    • alejna

      Jennifer, I really like this view of things. Contentment seems like a very worthy goal. There is so much focus on striving for “happiness” that many people are dissatisfied with their lives, and have trouble seeing the good of the every day.

  11. Debi

    Happiness, I would have went for a 7, maybe an 8. I am blessed by a lot in my life but I have been afflicted with always wanting more, better. It’s a damned curse. My happiness 10 is a moving target. Even in those moments of 9.5, I always find a scenario that could be better. It gives me something to strive for and it works out expending my nervous energy because I am a true believer in failure is not an option. I suspect, I will achieve level 10 happiness about 3 days before I die because that is how my life works out:) Be happy Neil. And JC, you are so damn cute and laid back, I hope your 10 happiness stays with you always.

  12. Elizabeth Aquino

    I love this — I’ve long pondered why I’m basically very happy despite my life sort of sucking right now. JC has explained it to me. Thanks to both of you.

  13. erin margolin

    I’m with Neil. I woulda chosen a 6 ish.
    I envy JC’s 10, fixed or not.
    And I’d rot my teeth for a few minutes b/c those kind of gumballs never last long taste-wise and become like chewing cement after 15 minutes.

  14. Kir

    oh what an interesting way to look at happiness.
    For me, I love that they were yellow, even if I was feeling 7ish, I would probably aim for an 8 because of the color of them. YELLOW makes me happy.

    JC has a great outlook on life, “I’ll have what she’s having” 😉
    I can’t claim a 10 right now, but an 8…sure, why not?


  15. kateanon

    I don’t think I’ll ever consider a 10 any more than I consider a 1. I’m always more moderate with these kinds of things.

    I admire that JC and others could choose it, though, and that maybe knocks me up a number.

  16. hello haha harf

    i am with jc!

  17. Amanda

    I love that you guys talked about being a #10.

    I love that there are different numbers and that’s ok.,\ I know that the 4 and 5 days I have make 10 that much sweeter.

  18. alejna

    Neil, this was a very entertaining story. I’m probably more of a #7, too.

  19. Cindy

    Maybe #1 and #10 were broken to show that if you chose #1, things couldn’t REALLY be that bad, and if you chose #10, you were not being realistic. A social exercise with a damper, as it were.

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