© Andrew Safer 2014
When I was a young boy growing up in New York City in the late 1950s, I used to love to go to Horn and Hardart’s “Automat” to marvel at all the luscious treats that were displayed in plain view. All my parents had to do was put coins in a slot and I could reach in and grab a plate of lemon meringue pie or a sandwich—ready to eat! (Ironically, the iconic Automats have been replaced by fast-food restaurants, where service isn’t nearly as swift.)
The notion that we can instantly get what we want is the basis for our consumerist culture, and money is the enabler. This “gimme” mentality also applies to intangibles like self-worth and happiness, which we are led to believe can be acquired (presto!) by purchasing material goods emblazoned with logos of well-known brands.
So I wasn’t surprised when a Google search on “Happiness” brought me to Coca-Cola’s web site. Their page on Happiness opens with: “The question is a simple one: How to be happy in life?” After a preamble about great philosophers, religious leaders, writers and thinkers who have asked this question, they cut to the chase…“The quest for true happiness is not really a quest at all, but a decision and a choice. So don't wait another moment. Open an ice cold Coca-Cola and choose happiness!”
Clicking on a link brings up a short video clip featuring the Coca-Cola Happiness Machine in Oslo—a modern version of Horn & Hardart’s Automat with one notable exception: the Coke is free! Passersby leave the Happiness Machine smiling from ear to ear. As if free Coke wasn't enough to bring smiles to faces, the luckiest shoppers are given gigantic Subway sandwiches and even skis! Either this sweet, fizzy brown liquid is leaving "happiness" in its wake, or these folks are laughing because someone's hand mysteriously served them their treat from inside the machine.
The expectation of instant results has bled into other areas of modern life. In the past month, I have received e-mails from several people asking questions about substantive issues. These queries were calling out for conversations, so I couldn’t just pound out a few fitful keystrokes and be done with it. I replied asking them to phone or to let me know when we could talk. I have yet to hear back. Absent an “Automat” answer, the communication went cold. It seems that escalating from e-mail to phone constitutes a breach of Internet privacy, which sadly aborts conversations and the chance of connecting with the other person beyond bits and bytes. Their lack of response may simply be a casualty of our short attention spans--and appetite for instant results--when we’re online.
While it may be true that the Coca-Cola Happiness Machine is nothing more than a humorous promotional stunt, the cumulative effect of these media messages is to degrade the meaning of “happiness”. It has become a commodity—an end product—divorced from any real-life process or context. By giving credence to the cardboard-cutout version that can pop out of a vending machine on demand, we reduce “happiness” to its lowest common denominator. And when the non-Hollywood version sneaks up and takes us by surprise while we’re sipping our Coke, we just might miss it.