“The power of goals, dreams, wishes, and aspirations, and the power of writing them down, is that it helps you visualise where you want to go.”
“We come together as one, and we unite, and we talk about each other’s problems, and help each other out.”
Why would a participatory art project that was first made at Burning Man be interesting and transformative to a city’s community? What role does goal setting, experiencing flow, and being playful have in that? And, how does a project like this help nurture and increase the participants’ happiness, by connecting and creating community? I tried to answer all of these questions, and more, in the documentary film Rainbow of Chaos, that I made about The Life Cube in Las Vegas.
From Burning Man to Las Vegas
I met Scott Cohen at Burning Man some years ago. Burning Man is an annual arts and music festival, that takes place in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, United States. Burning Man is a temporary city of 70,000 which exists for only a week a year. Burning Man is an experiment in community and art, guided by principles that include self-reliance and self-expression, gifting, leaving no trace, and decommodification . There is no money exchanged at the event, and participants bring everything that they need to survive in the desert and want to gift to others. Burning Man is considered simultaneously as one of the world’s biggest parties, and one of the world’s largest interactive, participatory art gatherings. The ‘playa’ is filled with interactive sculptures and structures , some of which are burned during the week of the event.
Scott’s positive experience with creating life goal lists had made him convinced that he needed to gift his art project, The Life Cube, to the Burning Man community. A “mailbox” that invited participants to write down their goals, dreams, wishes, and aspirations, and place it in the installation.
During the burn of the art installation, these messages would be sent up to the universe, to manifest them. In later versions, Scott had expanded this idea, by adding the opportunity for participants to paint, draw, and write on the installation. And, he invited hosts and musicians to use the space as a place to come and do yoga sessions, workshops, and performances. The Life Cube has become a community project, carried by so-called ‘Cube-ists’. People that have seen the power of the installation changing their life, and the life of others.
After three Life Cubes at Burning Man, Scott now had a new goal, and that goal was taking this experience from Burning Man to cities around the world. The first non-Burning Man version of the Life Cube happened in Las Vegas in 2014, an event that lasted weeks and culminated in a city burn of the installation. I wasn’t there then but came to document the second version, in 2016, that lasted for a month. What I encountered was an installation that aimed, and succeeded, in doing a couple of distinct things:
- the power of goal-setting,
- the joy of creativity, flow, and playfulness
- and connecting and creating community.
All things that are considered instrumental in creating and maintaining individual happiness levels.
The genesis of the art installation is Scott’s conviction that writing down your goals, dreams, wishes, and aspirations increases the chance of them happening.
He has experienced this first hand throughout his life and had seen this power working for others as well. Goal setting has been identified in studies as a major component in our sense of happiness. Scott is described by others as a force of nature, someone who moves mountains. That attitude is infectious. He invites people to write down their goals, dreams, wishes, and aspirations on so-called ‘wish sticks’: postcards that can be dropped into slots in the installation.
Scott’s philosophy behind this is simple but effective. By writing down your goals and dreams, you start a process of envisioning them, how to pursue them, breaking them down into the steps that are necessary, and you start actively pursuing them. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, in The How of Happiness, setting goals is a very effective strategy of raising our happiness, and works best with goals that are intrinsic, authentic, harmonious, flexible, and active.
In an interview segment that only partially made the final cut of the documentary, I extensively asked Scott about how this goal setting could be misunderstood for the Law of Attraction and other pseudoscientific ideas. Scott emphasised that setting goals and writing them down starts a process that one works through, much along the lines of scientifically backed goal setting: setting goals and intentions in writing them down helps envision their outcome and process, creates ownership and identifies blockers, and creates accountability for these goals.
When hearing stories at the Cube how the installation had changed the lives of people involved, from small things like someone finally deciding to propose and marry their partner or having a short-term goal to be more friendly and compassionate to others, to bigger things like artists being able to further pursue their career professionally, or people making radical life changes for the positive, it was clear that the Cube succeeded in installing more happiness in people, by this goal setting.
Becoming child: creativity, flow and playfulness
Next, to goal setting, another big part of the happiness-inducing qualities of the Life Cube lie in what I have dubbed in the documentary “becoming child”. The Cube invites participants to be creative themselves, by painting on the installation, by participating in interactive workshops, and by either enjoying music performances or participating in them yourself.
The effect of creativity on our happiness and well-being is a subject that has been extensively studied. Creativity helps us be happier because it enables us to express and process emotions, it activates the reward regions of our brain, and it helps us focus on the moment, also known as creating flow.
Apart from this, something I heard a lot at the Cube, as you can see in the documentary, is that creativity helps us reconnect with our inner child and be more playful. Playfulness as a way to nurture our happiness is an idea that has been proposed by Bernard de Koven , and is backed by research that shows a clear correlation between playfulness and our sense of happiness . The Cube creates an environment for people to be creative, to experience flow, and do all of that in a playful way, that instils happiness.
A happy Rainbow of Chaos
Possibly the biggest mission of the Life Cube is to connect the community through art. The effect of community on our level of happiness has been documented in different studies, that show that there are long-term positive effects of community, in strengthening our relationships, that lead to longer and happier lives.
Scott has expanded and grown the community of Cube-ists, which take ownership of different parts of the project and make Scott’s vision of a “rainbow of chaos” come true. This community is made of different layers or smaller communities. First of all, there is the inner core of Cube-ists, which together with Scott build and create the installation. Secondly, there are local event organisers, artists, musicians, yoga teachers and workshop hosts, that join in having a level of ownership of the space, and create part of the ‘permanent’ artwork on the Cube, and its the peripheral events. Thirdly, there is the local community of Burners [active participants that regularly go to Burning Man and satellite events], that was involved in the overall event, and especially the burn of the installation. Fourthly, there are the local residents and incidental passers-by, that got enthusiastic after visiting the installation once, and got actively involved in maintaining it, keeping it safe, and helping out with chores. And finally, there is the community of schools, which Scott involved by going to talk to thousands of school children and gifting these schools ‘satellite cubes’ that children could paint and put their wish sticks in.
Studies show that community strengthens relationships and has a positive emotional result, especially in shared novel experiences and sharing positive events. The Life Cube exemplifies this, in its creation of community around this ‘novel’ experience and positive event. Most American inner cities are not the most friendly and positive environments. There are, also in Las Vegas, problems with crime, with drug use, with homelessness, and the overall rundown state that these downtown areas are in. The site of the Life Cube was like an oasis of community amidst all these issues. A homeless man would volunteer in keeping the installation clean, while a local artist was painting a mural, and the inner core of Cube-ists would do maintenance and prepare structural elements and lighting. Meanwhile, a group of school children would visit the Cube for a quick session of painting and an inspirational talk by Scott. Afterwards, some local volunteers would start prepping a musical performance, while another local volunteer was hosting a yoga session. Simultaneously Burners would gather for a fire safety meeting in preparation of the burn. And then throughout the day also local residents would come and visit, experience the installation, paint, and write their wish sticks. People of these different communities would interact, where normally they would not, and just this interacting in itself created an overall connectedness and happiness at the Cube.
Changing the world?
In the documentary, Scott is not modest about his goals: he wants to change the world, by bringing Life Cubes to different cities and countries, spreading the effects of goal setting, of creativity, and of community around the world. It’s an ambitious goal and statement, but when looking at the magic that was created in Las Vegas, it is achievable.
As Flash Hopkins, one of the founders of Burning Man and ally of Scott in the project says in the documentary: “If he can change one person, then he has already done it.” I would argue that Scott has changed many lives, both at Burning Man and in Las Vegas. I invite you to watch the full documentary, Rainbow of Chaos, and find out for yourself. Art and community can make us happier.
Photos by Arlo Laibowitz