In Conversation: Samuel Schwarz

Samuel Schwarz is a Swiss film and theatre director, and founder of the 400asa Theatre group in Zürich. Libby O’Loghlin asks him about ‘Polder‘, the largest transmedia storytelling project to come out of Switzerland, of which he is the founder and director. Schwarz is also writer of the feature film, which he co-directed with Julian M. Grünthal

Samuel Schwarz

Samuel Schwarz, film and theatre director, and founder of Theatre group 400asa. Image copyright: Stephan Rappo

The Polder film is being released in 2016, but the film is in fact only one adaptation (or ‘touchpoint’) for the whole Polder project … tell us a bit about what a ‘polder’ is, and where it all began.

At the beginning, there were two projects. We planned a ‘conspiracy’ game to evolve over time, with the 400asa theatre company and, in parallel, I developed the script for the movie with some small funding from SWR (Süddeutscher Rundfunk). Then I pitched both projects to a game start-up we wanted to collaborate with. But the CEO of that start-up (GBANGA), Matthias Sala, said, “Listen, Sam, this is not two projects. Think of Polder as one project.” That was in 2010.

Polder touchpoints. Image courtsy: Samuel Schwarz

Polder touchpoints. Image courtsy: Samuel Schwarz

According to John Clute’s “Encyclopaedia of Fantasy”, polders are:

enclaves of toughened reality demarcated by boundaries (thresholds) from the surrounding world … an active microcosm, armed against the potential wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time. Polders change only when they are being devoured from without.

The classic examples would be Tolkien’s Shire and Oz or Hogwarts, but digital worlds make especially intensive polders possible—with the large global corporations being ideal ‘hosts’.

Our Polder is a hellish trip into the magical psycho narrative of IT corporations, and it tells us about our relationships with those major corporations that administer our fantasies. It is also about our disappearance into these parallel worlds. What will happen when the machines can emulate sentient beings? Will they enjoy human rights … even when these beings can be reproduced by the billions, with quantum computers?

When we posed these questions at the beginning of project development, they were still questions of fantasy. Pure science fiction. But now, they preoccupy the most important scientists, neurologists and jurists. That’s how quickly Moore’s law has brought these questions out of the realm of fantasy into reality. Scientists and computer pioneers like Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark and Bill Gates have, in the meantime, even founded the Future of Life Institute, in order to warn us of the dangers of artificial intelligence.

“Moore’s law” is the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.
—Wikipedia, Moore’s law

How did you go about orchestrating the Polder Alternate Reality Games (ARG) in 2013, and how many people were involved?

We had different manifestations. In the urban games storyworld, in Zürich and Bern, the effort was gigantic. There were more than 40 actors in the game-zones, and of course an interactive storytelling like that is not possible without the integration of role players who bring themselves in, free of charge. We paid 15 professional actors and crew as though they were in an outside-theatre production.

Professional actor Luc Müller plays an addicted

Professional actor Luc Müller playing an addicted NEUROO-X technology ‘user’, in the Polder Alternate Reality Game in Bern. Image courtesy: Julian M. Grünthal.

On several days—like the Halloween special—we also had some school classes as zombies in the game zone. But things like that just ‘happened’ … we didn’t plan it. Although you could say that because the system was built in this way, it was bound to happen.

At one point, there was a very strange mix of users, and prosumers in the game zones. One night, we had an ‘audience of users’ of about a hundred people.

In Sils Maria, in the countryside—which was our other ARG storyworld—our audience was older, it was the ‘geriatric audience’ version, if you like. For old people who like to be immersed in a wonderful landscapes—and be entertained by good-looking young actors who read Nietzsche for them in a warm comfort zone!

Übermensch on a donkey: Nietzsche's concept of the 'Übermensch' was played out in the Sils Maria Alternate Reality Game

Übermensch on a donkey: Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (super human) is played out with Zürich actress Meret Hottinger, in the Sils Maria Alternate Reality Game, Zarathustra.

Of course, from a commercial point of view, the alternate reality games were PR-campaigns for the later phases of the storytelling. [Because there was going to be a movie, for example.] But because we tell the story across a long timeframe, we and the actors were ultimately immersed deeply in the stage we were at, with no thought that it was a ‘PR character’. There was of course a commercial master plan, but we always forgot about it … in this way, we are no different than the naïve Star Wars fan who knows that the franchise is always pulling his money out of his pocket … because the story is still cool! This is—again—terrible and beautiful at the same time.

At the 2013 XMedia Lab held here in Switzerland, World Building Institute’s Alex McDowell (Minority Report, Fight Club) talked comprehensively about storyworlds, placing the importance of world-building far ahead of plotting or character development. Does this resonate with your experience in developing the Polder film?

We developed the main themes of the plot in in several manifestations of Alternate Reality Games, as I mentioned—in urban landscapes, but also in nature. The ARG in nature became a very important manifestation for us—this was the Alternate Reality Game Polder: Zarathustra that we set in Sils Maria [in the Swiss canton of Graubünden]. In this world, the Game start-up, NEUROO-X, like science and technology, help us to evolve or transcend our own humanity.

Sils Maria was for us the perfect landscape, because Sils Maria as a ‘mindscape’, is very connected with the Idea of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The valley itself looks almost CGI-rendered in its extreme beauty, and it is also where Nietzsche in fact wrote Zarathustra.

Our theatre-audience (‘users’) were immersed with the Polder-App: they were guided with GPS tracked audio walks, and they had to solve mysterious riddles, and then they could meet in the wood wizards, knights and witches from our universe.

Cosplayer in Blutturm, Sils Maria

Cosplayer in Blutturm, Bern. Image courtesy: Julian M. Grünthal.

In Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra there is a passage in which Nietzsche is full of anger against the state. For him, ‘the state’ is a monster. And he reflects on freedom (in opposition to this state). In Sils Maria, we realised the inner core of our project is the struggle of ‘old structures’—countries, parliaments—against the power and intelligence of smart Silicon Valley narratives, which don’t need states and parliaments anymore and who are created by brilliant men and women.

And the characters?

In our story, the brilliant game designer Marcus is a kind of reincarnation of Edward Snowden, who rises against the ‘evil’ IT industry. Then we have fantastical characters like the beautiful witch Kuchisake Onna, who we developed out of a basic warlike conflict—a mixture of Old Testament Lilith, manga demons and Lara Croft. A real nerd fantasy.

Screencap, Polder movie stills, courtesy

Montage, various Polder movie stills, images courtesy: Dschoint Venture/Niama/Kamm(m)acher.

Our Urban Space alternate reality games in Zürich and Bern was made for younger people, for gamers, for fantasy fans and role players [called ‘cosplayers’, from ‘costume players’]. They—like us—like storytelling about ‘evil’ companies, idealistic heroes, rebels, artificial Intelligence, thinking machines, wizards and monsters. They also like level systems … and the participation culture.

Linear storytelling (immersive audio walks) guided these users to the interactive ‘game-zones’. They had to solve riddles within the game-zone, and interact with the actors. And—to your question about characters—at the end of the game, they had to fight against the Boss called Fritz (played by the very charismatic and clever professional actor, Philippe Graber). The users played in Fritz’s subconscious. Fritz was a character influenced strongly by Nietzsche—but that was not essential for the understanding of the story, it was more a joke for the insiders. (Fritz, as a character, is intact without the philosophical background.) But for the game system it was essential that there was a character who had the problems of Fritz, who was lost in a mental labyrinth—like Nietzsche. And it was essential that the users help Fritz ‘kill’ himself in this alternate gaming-dream-world. With this act of humanistic violence they could prevent a massacre in the game’s ‘real world’. Of course it was also a reflection about violence in games.

Some might say true transmedia stories (i.e., stories that are designed to unfold over time using different elements across various media) aren’t for ‘the masses’ because the inherent fragmentation of the narrative requires more commitment or engagement from the consumer—‘context-switching’, if you like—and most people don’t have time for that. Yet others would argue that this fragmentation leaves much more ‘space’ for the viewer/reader/consumer to engage or bring their own experiences to the story. Where do you stand on this?

I don’t think it’s necessary for the user to change platforms all the time to have a good story experience. I think storytelling gets better when the creators use several platforms, though, because they can create deeper worlds, and they have to address several audiences for the same content.

Set, cosplay scene, in which it can be seen that the influence of the Alternate Reality Game experiences flowed directly into the film development.

Set, cosplay scene, in which it can be seen that the influence of the Alternate Reality Game experiences flowed directly into the film development. Image courtesy: Philippe Antonello.

One can’t deny that cross-media projects can be enormous in scope, with a lot of moving parts and ever-changing and evolving technologies. What attracts you personally to working with numerous media, and what’s the most challenging part for you?

For us, the use of the technique is not the most challenging part. It’s more the fascinating new relationships of users to the story. I like to think about the changes the technologies attract with our thinking. But I am still not sure if the high potential of transmedia storytelling is just a very smart simulation of the ‘franchise’. Just look at the example of soccer: every ‘real soccer fan’ thinks he is a real ‘soccer fan’—and he hates FIFA and Sepp Blatter. But in the end the fan is a creature of Sepp Blatter.

Maybe the users just think they can ‘create’ a story and be part of it, and maybe that’s just an illusion the ‘machine’ or the thinking ‘franchise’ creates for him. But how sweet is this illusion! The joy of the user is also a reality. That means: I still don’t know if we live in a nightmare or in a wonderful, colourful dream. And it’s this ambivalence the polder wants to express.

Tell us more about this ‘ambivalence’.

Today users play ‘retro games’ and experience a kind of melancholic longing, and the kids dress up as cosplayers and want to be like their beloved entities. The boundaries have shifted. This has a lot to do with the stronger influence of Japanese storytelling. The moral ambivalence of narrative attitude is also a result of the confrontation with the magic ‘Trickfilms’ of Hayao Miyazaki (creator of Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away—but also by the Cartoon Heidi), an important example for us. So the parallel worlds and the main world are converging, and when the differentiation between reality and gaming is dissolved, there is no more game, then we are—as one of the Polder characters says—”… in hell”.

We may complain about the exploitation of our most secret longings, about the gamification of our life environment, but we nonetheless like to lose ourselves in the artificial worlds of the machines.

Big Data makes it possible for the corporations, the secret services and their machines, to provide us with the dreams we always wanted to dream. The algorithms know more about us than we do. Polder is a ‘user’ project  that illustrates our ambivalent relationship with these corporations, that can fulfil our most beautiful, but also our most terrible longings. We are bound in an unholy/holy love-hate relationship. We may complain about the exploitation of our most secret longings, about the gamification of our life environment, but we nonetheless like to lose ourselves in the artificial worlds of the machines.

But can we say with certainty that this loss of our sense of reality is only bad? Is perhaps the sweet desire of Friedrich Nietzsche’s last human being fulfilled for us? What will it be like when the machines simply satisfy more of our desires? Will we defend ourselves? Should we defend ourselves? Will we even play anymore when everything has become a game?

Nietzsche and 'users': Image from ARG in Sils Maria

‘Fritz’ Nietzsche and ‘users’: image from the Polder ARG Zarathustra in Sils Maria. Image courtesy: Jules Spinatsch.

Finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

2001: A Space Odyssey is very very high on my list. Why? Because of the line of HAL, the computer: “Will I dream, Dave?”

The Polder film will be released in 2016.

The Polder storyworld, and all its adaptations, can be discovered by diving down the Polder Facebook rabbit-hole:

The Polder feature film teaser:

Bringing Legend to Life

By JD Smith

One of the beautiful things about legends is that they are inherently shrouded in mystery, stories passed down through generations, twisted and changed and retold. They are history and at the same time they are fire-side stories, propaganda and bending of truth to favour the side of the storyteller.

old script by @libby_ol

To adapt a legend going back hundreds or thousands of years is to change history once more and bring a new angle to an old tale. We storytellers do it without thinking because we are born to explore characters, places and what might have been. We tread the path of the unknown, weaving our findings in and around knowledge recorded in poems, songs and books which have been passed on and retold through the ages.

Tristan and Iseult Cover MEDIUMTristan and Iseult is one such legend, made popular in French poetry during the 12th century. It may or may not have been a true story. It is the romance and tragedy of Cornish knight, Tristan, and Irish princess, Iseult, retold many times and influencing many stories to follow. It predates Arthurian legend and is considered to have been the basis for the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The legend first appealed to me when I read Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy, where he weaves into the story all the hallmarks of what makes Arthurian legend what it is, including Tristan and Iseult and their love for one another, but in a way that is truly believable, even the magic of Merlin. His masterly skill showed me there were ways yet to retell old stories in new ways, and a few years later I took up the challenge.

I went back to the heart of what makes Tristan and Iseult the people they are and stripped away the myth. What did we really know about these two people? What is the essence of their story? Tristan was nephew to King Mark of Kernow (Cornwall) and Iseult was the daughter to the Irish king Donnchadh’s. We know Lord Morholt seized control of southern Ireland, and we know he was defeated. And we know Tristan and Iseult loved one another, but that it was a forbidden love.

From there I wove a tale I believed in, a tale of simple love that echoes across the centuries. The characters would never speak the word but they would feel it and show it and know what it is to find a person they want to spent their life with but unable to because life doesn’t always happen that way. Love is not always easy and it is not always kind. Sometimes it is a sickness and we believe the other person to be the cure when really, only time and distance can starve the fever. The question for me was would love fade to nothing?

fade to grey by @libby_ol

I wove into this simple story other elements I found on my research travels; mentions of Iseult of the White Hands, Tristan’s mother, his cousin, the war against the Saxons, struggles against the Irish, and the mention at the very end of hazel and honeysuckle that features in some sources, but again, it is a hint of other tales and my own take on them.

For me, the tale of these two lovers was poetic and yet I am no poet. I took instead the immediacy of first person present tense for a legend over a thousand years old, bringing it rapidly into the here and now. Above all I am a cynic and I couldn’t write a story with an obvious love conquers all ending, although in some ways it does. My exploration of Tristan and his Iseult was not one of researching historical facts and discovering the truth of events and actions, but finding the true nature of love and loyalty and how it makes us the people we are.

Jane_12_LARGETristan and Iseult is a finalist for the Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year Award 2015. The winner will be announced in June.

JD Smith is the author of Tristan and Iseult, The Rise of Zenobia and The Fate of an Emperor, editor of Words with JAM and Bookmuse, and the mother of three mischievous boys.

Seedling’s Muse

A meditation on ‘Adaptation’, by Sherida Deeprose

She is a wildflower, clothing the naked earth, covering it with her own brand of beauty, thrusting down into parched earth, seeking the rain’s drops below the surface. In the most unexpected places, she blooms. When no one is looking.

No coddled seedling nor hothouse flower wilting in drought, but an unstoppable weed. Harsh sun, flooding rains, rocky soil don’t deter her. She bursts up, resilient and hardy, adapting to this particular patch of earth. A nomad, she has floated in and put down her roots, thriving against all odds.

crocusWrestle with her, crush her underfoot, poison her, neglect her. Wrench her out and leave her for dead. Still, she will sprout her way up and out, springing—like a weed. Creativity is opportunistic, taking root in depleted soil. She soothes the bare patches of life, helps us find nurture in depths we avoid. She’s a wilder force than we can control. With routine, structure and technique we provide the garden, but the seeds we plant might not be the ones that bloom. We till the soil, let the seeds die, and wait. Most likely we’ll reap fruit we didn’t know we had sown—wanton seedlings rising from the compost of our lives.

One dew-sparkled morning she’ll surprise us with a blossom that intoxicates even the bees. We’ll cry out in delight, plucking the flower and blowing her seeds to the wind.

Sherida Deeprose is a Canadian writer based in Zürich.


Zürich is full of creative, imaginative, cultural nomads for whom adaptation is a way of life. Change and learning how to fit in means something different to all of us. It’s awkward, painful, enlightening, hard work, liberating and funny. Here, some Woolf readers talk about their own journeys of adaptation, growth and imagination.


By Gabrielle Mathieu

Image: Your imagination can take you anywhere Creative Commons

Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.

Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.

You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?

And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.

Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.

Remain free.

The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.



Images and text: Hilarie Burke

Hilarie in Kindergarten Off and running.

I am an extrovert. I was born in Japan. My education started as the only non-Japanese among 30 Kindergarteners.  We moved to three Asian countries for 2-4 year stints before settling in the US at age 12. Additionally, I was a cross-eyed, toe headed dyslexic with glasses and eye patch. I learned, right off the bat, that I was a person among people, not part of the clan. I would never fit in, an early if unconscious realization that freed me from the agony of trying. Being open to the people around me, led me to folks of like mind, our energies matched. The idea that I might ever be able to actually ‘fit in’ never entered my mind, except to yearn for the impossible—thick, black Asian hair. I gained a broad sense of what community means. My good friends in each country were native to that country; an adaptation practice that goes a long way. Self worth could not be measured according to the approval of others. Paying attention to my own disapproving thoughts became an adaptive tool.

pakistan, hilarieWhen I listen to the conversation about immigration and the need for immigrants to adapt, I wonder. What does that mean? Ok, finding and keeping a job, and generally living by the laws and norms of the society one lives in. But even second-generation immigrants will always be part of the culture they came from, especially if there is a racial difference. It helps to recognize that they add great cultural wealth to the host country. Resistance to change is treacherous. Adaptation is core to the process of evolution. Integrating into a global society is a survival tactic.

I remain comfortable as an outsider living in Switzerland, and muddling through German. Knowing I will never be Swiss is liberating. If I have a clan, it is the international community. We share a big thing in common. We are all outsiders.



Notes from the Unexpected: Backstage at Kaufleuten

Text and images: DB Miller

Reflections Kaufleuten-styleUnder the glare of tube lighting, down the stairs off backstage left, the casualties from the weekend wait their turn. A red velvet stool rests on a table, its foot glued and clamped. Above a tangle of broken chairs, three chipped disco balls sag like rotting fruit. If the furniture could speak, oh, the tales! Then again, it’s just another day here in the Kaufleuten workshop—another reminder that for all the excitement of a Kaufleuten night, there’s always a morning after.

Kaufleuten“Something’s usually not working,” says Corina Freudiger, laughing but wary of the crystal chandelier that has been temporarily jacked up between a ladder and a speaker stack. The head of Kaufleuten’s cultural events and I are now in the concert hall, one of the lush spaces she and her team aim to fill—at least before bedtime. The Kultur department isn’t responsible for the nocturnal shindigs of the famed club, but rather the 200-odd concerts, author readings, cabarets and heady discussions the venue hosts each year. Ever since Lenin, Joyce and the Dadaists graced the stage nearly a century ago, Kaufleuten has been pulling in a mix of hotshots, rookies and loose cannons. And then there are the performers.

The Kaufleuten touchFrom Patti Smith and Cat Power to Michael Ondaatje and Amélie Nothomb, Kaufleuten has a knack for booking legends, sometimes before they’re called that, but anything can happen when the lights dim. Meltdowns, mutinies and flashes of soul-searing perfection are possible on any given night, even the same night. Wing nuts in the audience, an impromptu striptease on stage—Corina has seen a lot over the years and, clocking in at over 40 events, so have I.

And yet, there are no regrets. It’s part of, as Corina puts it, the “magic of the live moment,” if not the strategy. Kaufleuten, after all, is a business.

“We’re here to entertain people at a high level,” she explains, but later cracks a smile and adds, “I would like to experiment more, especially when it comes to the readings. I think a writer’s words are between the reader and the writer, but how you present the writing is important. It doesn’t always have to be the author on stage, telling the audience ‘the truth’ … I mean, when people come here for two hours, something has to happen.”

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

Corina Freudiger and the Kaufleuten touch

The urge to liven things up also goes for concerts, and not only to compensate for the glut of backstage requests for vegan and non-alcoholic fare. Audiences are changing too and, for some, maybe an old-fashioned rush of euphoria no longer cuts it. This could explain the rise in themed events, such as the open-air literary festival in the Old Botanical Gardens (co-run with the Literaturhaus) and the new three-day offshoot of Zermatt Unplugged.

Kaufleuten moodAll good, so long as I can still get my swirl of velvet, brass and beer straight from the bottle while art—or someone’s vision of it—unfolds and explodes across the room. Corina says just as much: “Glamour is part of the Kaufleuten myth, but messy is interesting.”


By D.B. Miller
Writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Gallery: Adaptation

The images in this month’s gallery are from Switzerland’s largest transmedia project, Polder. You can read the full story about the rural and urban alternate reality games, the feature film, the concept and the project’s director and producer, Samuel Schwarz here.

Making Tracks: Summer 2015

Goings-on in the city of Zürich and beyond.

Image courtesy: Polder film, Kamm[m]acher/400asa

Polder film stills montage courtesy: Dschoint Venture/Niama Film/Kamm(m)acher

Summer in Zürich is all about outdoors. The lake is warming up and so is the culture scene. A wealth of entertainments await. Glorious locations, exciting visitors and homegrown talent—it’s all right here, on our doorstep. Throw off your thermals and dive in.

Books and authors

Highlights of the Literaturhaus Programme include Siri Hustvedt on 10 June and Laurie Penny on 17 June. Browse the events here.

All kinds of exciting outdoor events are happening during Zürich’s Open Air Literatur Festival.

Don’t forget, from 10am on the first Saturday of every month it is Story Hour at The English Bookshop on Bahnhofstrasse. Keep the kids entertained while you browse and get 10% off!


Our next Writers’ Brunch takes place on Sunday June 28 at the Restaurant Viadukt from 10am – 12pm. Come along to chat, meet writers, learn about upcoming events and drink coffee.

Keep an eye on Zürich Writers Workshop for the announcement of the next weekend workshop date this autumn.

Writing at the Castle. A few places are still available for a writing retreat at a château in south west France 1-7 July. More info here.


From 12 June to 12 July, Zurich’s Festspiele fills the city with an annual celebration of classical music, art, theatre, opera, and dance, presenting local and international artists of world renown.

Every summer (6-23 August), over 20 theatre groups stage performances around the city, including open-air productions next to the lake, for the Theaterspektakel!


Swiss Press Photo Exhibition – runs until 5 July at the Landesmuseum

Watching movies by the lake is a fabulous way to spend a summer’s evening. The OpenAir Cinema runs from 16 July to 16 August, at Zürichhorn.


Catch singer songwriter Suzanne Vega on 5 July at Bogen. She has a wonderful way with words.


Writers and Artists (UK) have a new competition: Killer Fiction Crime and Thriller competition, closes Friday 31st July

Adapting to Happiness

The Woolf’s resident scientist, Iida Ruishalme, approaches happiness from diverse angles, looking at how her ideas may have adapted to her circumstances over the years.

For the bigger part of my life I accepted the idea that the most important goal in life was to be happy. The happiness-concept neatly encompasses everything else, doesn’t it? Perhaps it does not say anything about money, fame, or success, but those kinds of things can all be had without any happiness involved. Money and success may have their appeal and, depending on the circumstances, may contribute to our feelings of satisfaction—but it seems that those goals alone aren’t sufficient, they aren’t the vital intrinsic stuff that a good and fulfilled life is made of. Happiness still triumphs.

buttercups Perhaps it’s no wonder that I thought more about my perspective on life goals after having children. Isn’t it natural that a good parent wishes simply for their children to grow up to be happy? I believe I have uttered that phrase myself. So, for a change of perspective, I wondered how satisfied my own mother should feel in that regard. Could she feel reassured that the life she has nurtured into adulthood has landed safely in the realms of happiness?

Am I happy? I tend to experience a rather wide array of emotions. I’m prone to sadness, apathy, enthusiasm, frustration, merriness and so on and, like it or not, I engage in all my emotions with gusto. This variety has by no means been dampened by having two little children (in a foreign country far from the support of extended family). A lot of the time it’s been hard. In fact, there is research to support that having children will not make parents any happier. On the contrary.

Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard made a chart that summarised results from four studies on the effect children have on marital happiness (quite closely aligned with general happiness) in his book Stumbling on Happiness. His chart was presented in its below form with the more appropriate title: The Most Terrifying Chart Imaginable for New Parents in a TED-talk, Let’s talk parenting taboos, by Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman, a couple who run a parenting website, babble.

gilbert graph

Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, and the now infamous graph otherwise known as ‘The most terrifying graph imaginable for new parents’. Image original source unknown.

Griscom and Volkman argue that the most dramatic change brought by children is not the shift in the average happiness, but that the satisfaction curve turns into a roller coaster, surpassing even the variety of adolescence.

This does somewhat match many people’s experiences on the topic, including mine. Before children, life had boring moments. Now I don’t really remember what that felt like.

Professor Gilbert was on similar lines in an interview on babble, where he argued against average happiness as the most important measure:

Being a parent lowers your average daily happiness. But average daily happiness isn’t all there is to be said about happiness. Indeed one could make the case that average happiness across a day isn’t what we’re trying for. As human beings, it’s not our aim. It shouldn’t be our goal. What we should be looking for is special transcendent moments that may even come at the cost of a lower average.

Ahaa! It’s the amount of transcendent moments that matter then, not happiness per se. Perhaps a life is a full and a good one if there are enough transcendent moments present.

To really focus on what we are talking about here, let’s look at some of the (more mundane) definitions for the word. For transcendental, Merriam-Webster gives:

  1. going beyond the limits of ordinary experience
  2. far better or greater than what is usual.

Huh. This still leaves me wondering. As nice as it is to have extraordinary, special moments—and I would much prefer a life with them to one without—I don’t know if I would use their frequency as a primary means of determining the make-up of the best kind of life.

Do I want my children to grow up to have lives with as many transcendent moments as possible? Or should I still go back to the happiness factor? And if happiness is the most important angle, would I want them to feel as much happiness as possible? Or is there such a thing as enough happiness, or too much?

I get the feeling that something is missing in this line of thinking. To get to the bottom of that, I tried to see if I could imagine scenarios with as much transcendence or happiness as possible, but which I would actually not wish on myself or my children.

I can imagine a kind of madness for instance, marked by a profound disconnect from reality, painfully apparent to everyone else but the person themselves. That person could still be experiencing a state of, say, perpetual transcendental bliss, without knowing anything of the outside world. Not a bad place to be, perhaps, but not my preferred one. Or how about a less extreme but more chilling kind of a prospect—let’s imagine a sociopath, a person wholly incapable of empathy. They could commit atrocious acts and still be perfectly happy. Not an impossible scenario at all, and a terrible one at that.

dark days by @libby_ol

Moving away from the extremes of mental illness, I would still argue that happiness as a goal has serious shortcomings. Let’s say that a cultural minority would become cruelly and permanently oppressed in our society—would I wish for me and the people I care about to simply continue being happy? Clearly there are other important factors to consider. We do not exist in a vacuum, after all. Our lives play out in a close relation to the world around us. It’s not only about how we feel, but what we do, and how that relates to others.

A comment from Tony Karon in the babble interview on parental happiness touches on something that, while it may seem like a poor comfort if we consider happiness the number one goal in life, illuminates that ‘something missing’:

By the measures that you used to determine your happiness before you had children, you’re completely miserable. That’s probably why so many people are so scared of it—because they don’t have access to another paradigm. But as soon as you have your children, those first moments of holding your child, your whole sense of what’s important to you changes, of what your place is in the world.

This comment seems to bring in something to the discussion that falls outside of happiness, this sense of what is important, and it’s definitely something I want my life to have—meaning. I wish for my children to lead lives that will feel meaningful to them.

But this is still something that is inside our heads—it’s just a feeling.

Is the important stuff in life all about feelings?

What about the people who struggle with life and can’t boast a particular aptitude on the merry feelings agenda? Firstly, psychology studies have shown support for the adaptation level theory which is the idea that even drastic life changes—ending up in a wheelchair or winning the lottery—merely shake our level of happiness temporarily, and we end back up our personal ‘normal’ level of happiness, calibrated to match our circumstances.

Secondly, there is growing body of research to support that the level of happiness we experience may to a large degree be innate. We may simply be born more or less prone to happiness! As reported by Time, there’s:

… a growing body of evidence that factors like genes and age may impact our general well-being more than our best day-to-day attempts at joy.

In one study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggest that genes account for about 50% of the variation in people’s levels of happiness—the underlying determinant being genetically determined personality traits, like “being sociable, active, stable, hardworking and conscientious,” says co-author Timothy Bates. What’s more, says Bates, these happiness traits generally come as a package, so that if you have one you’re likely to have them all.

Should the mothers of people who do not have this ‘ happiness package’, and don’t naturally overflow with joy, feel disappointed?

“Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs” by FireflySixtySeven. Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I would not like to give the idea to a melancholy child that her life was somehow worse than that of a more carefree sibling. I do wish that my children will experience a wide range of emotions; enough happiness not to despair; enough empathy to be sad about the suffering of others; and a feeling of agency to enable them to make their own personal mark on the world. No one state of being has the decisive importance over others. Some happiness, like good food and a solid roof over your head, sure are good things to have, and can make living a lot easier – happiness as a need, perhaps falling somewhere along “love and belonging” and “self-esteem” in Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy. But like with money: having more is great, but having a lot falls short of being a primary goal. Life is neither about a static state of having nor being. Life is doing.

What is it that I put above happiness? Learning. Caring. Understanding. Creating. Growing. Doing those things, I may not always be happy. Sometimes I may be downright miserable. Hopefully I will feel that I’m doing something I want to do—at the very least, figuring out what it is that I want to do. I will seek until I have a sense of purpose. It’s more important for me to be happy about what I am doing than to chase some hard-to-define degree of being happy for another hard-to-define (sufficient?) portion of my time.

Certainly it’s a worthy to goal to find enjoyment in life, and the searching as well as the finding will occasionally cause me (and others) moments of happiness. But that’s all those are—moments among others. The more crucial goal, as I see it, is instilling in yourself and others that wish to keep on searching and having those moments, transcendent or not.

… there must be an intrinsic value in how we relate to this world

late summer

Apart from all the things that go on in our heads, there must be an intrinsic value in how we relate to this world. I don’t want my children to live in a bubble, no matter how happy a bubble it may be. I want them to care for that what’s around them in some form—humans or animals; philosophy or construction; nature or culture—some aspect of this universe.

I want them to want to engage with the world, preferably engaging and challenging themselves in the process. None of us are ever finished. We are always on the verge of becoming someone slightly new. Becoming what we can be—what we want to be—not ceasing to change, now that is a worthy goal.

Whether my children wish to engage in the world through learning something, helping others, expressing themselves, or developing new ways of seeing beauty in the universe—engagement and drive, more than just happiness, help make living mean something.

party party party

Happiness is a bit like confetti. It’s something nice and colourful to go with the moments when we enjoy the results of our engagement, our participation in something that is worthwhile. But even if there is no festival of happiness along the way or even at the end of a task, doing will carry a sense of accomplishment that has meaning. It will keep me going. Happiness is secondary. It’s doing, changing, developing, taking part, that makes all the difference.

Even the research tells us that doing good deeds—volunteering, practising generosity and kindness, interacting with others in need of support—has a marked effect on our joy and happiness. Altruistic deeds can even improve health and prolong life. The beautiful conclusion from a review of volunteerism and civic engagement:

… because being useful to others instills a sense of being needed and valued.

I could manage to get through a lot more misery, knowing that I am needed and valued. So I’ve changed my mind about happiness as a life goal. Being happy in life is not as important as being happy about life, and even that is not as important as the will to do something about if and when I—or others—are decidedly unhappy. I’ll trade happiness for doing something I believe in.

I think I can live with the secondary happiness of that choice.


Iida Ruishalme is a cell biologist, a science communicator, and a fiction writer. She is also a contributor to Genetic Literacy Project and Skepti-Forum. She blogs at