Sometimes, you have to go to SW7.
If there was a place in London that emitted dopamine, it would probably be South Kensington. I have always thought of this part of west London as mysteriously happier than the rest of the city; presumably because it’s always sunny and everyone there is blonde and thin and wealthy and always wearing pastels. A kind of fiscal cheerleader effect. So it makes sense, probably, that the capital’s latest immersive experience – the happily-named Dopamine Land – resides on Old Brompton Road. But on the predictably sunny Saturday when I trek to this epicentre of happy hormones, I’m not feeling so cheery. There’s a crowd of 30 people outside Hummingbird Bakery. A chorus of toddlers, somewhere, everywhere, are screaming inconsolably. People keep stopping dead in their tracks in front of me to take photos of passing sports cars. My dopamine is in short supply.
Dopamine Land is the latest initiative from Fever, an events agency which offers everything from drag brunches to artisanal cheese tours to something called ‘Discover Auschwitz’. They’re an equal opportunities organiser, heavy on the immersion. Dopamine Land, though, is not so much an immersive experience as it is a ‘multisensory’ one, meant to ‘channel the limitless imagination of your inner child’. Set within a sweep of red-brick mansions round the corner from the tube, it bills itself as an ‘interactive museum’. Over a series of 15 themed rooms, in exchange for £15 – £1 a room! – the ‘dopamine scientists’ behind the experience want to give us back the happiness we’re all in desperate need of. I’m feeling cautiously hopeful.
The entrance to Dopamine Land is a long black tunnel that feels a little like you’re sitting inside your own comedown. At the end of the tunnel, predictably, there’s light. The room opens up into neon and birdsong and everything smells vaguely saccharine and metallic, like those body sprays that we used to smother ourselves in after pe. To my horror, I discover that I am the only person here experiencing Dopamine Land alone. In front of me there are no fewer than four couples. I struggle to think of something I would like to do with my husband less than spend a Saturday afternoon in an immersive exhibition that’s been expressly designed to artificially induce happiness.
‘My granny always takes me somewhere instead of [giving me] an actual present,’ a birthday boy behind me is complaining in a tone that suggests this is tantamount to child abuse. ‘Would you like to step inside a popcorn machine?’, a note on the wall asks me. ‘The smell, the sound and the sights of popcorn, through images that are projected onto the walls and the sound effects, will transport you to a world of popcorn.’ I sit in silence eating stale popcorn with two girls from Limerick who are visiting London for the weekend. I wondered to myself how this experience would live up to seeing, say, Buckingham Palace.
At first I was concerned that, by coming to Dopamine Land to write about it, I’m siphoning away everyone else’s dopamine reserves by virtue of being cynical, and typing mean jokes about Buckingham Palace in my Notes app. I needn’t have worried about this though. Everyone is at Dopamine Land to create content. ‘We are very pro-cameraphone,’ one dopamine scientist says. Like most immersive events currently popping up in London, Dopamine Land is geared towards the grid.
One room is filled with Yayoi Kusama-inspired lights and mirrors. You can do selfies in an 80s spin studio or a pretend forest. In an arts and crafts room we’re invited to scrawl things that make us happy all over the walls. Someone has written ‘Lucy Liu spit in my mouth.’ After this I sit very carefully in a ball pit, totally alone, listening to indeterminate house music.
‘Don’t jump in,’ says one Good Samaritan employee, ‘It’s not deep enough, you’ll hurt yourself.’
‘So don’t jump.’
‘Okay, I won’t jump.’
I cannot think of anything less geared towards happiness than being alone in a dark ball pit listening to house music. I wish I was on drugs.
A booming voice reveals more sources of dopamine, like ‘remembering fondly those with whom you have parted ways’. I wonder if people sit here thinking about their exes and dead relatives, sober, overflowing with dopamine. After the ball pit there’s a candlelit ‘chillout room’. I wonder if people fuck in the chillout room after fondly remembering those with whom they have parted ways. The last room in Dopamine Land is supposed to be for pillow fights, which is presumably the ultimate way to channel your inner child. Nobody is actually having a pillow fight; there are loads of pillows all over the floor and everyone is just taking selfies over the deafening strains of N-Trance’s Set You Free.
On the train back I google ‘dopamine’ and attempt to self-check my levels of happy hormones, to see if they’re any different to before (not really). When I get home, I have nothing worth posting to my Instagram grid. Presumably this is the reason why I was the only idiot to go there alone. Selfies are fine but you really need someone else behind the camera to get action shots of you frolicking in a shallow ball pit or drinking a £9 magical gin. To add insult to injury, several people on my Instagram Stories – normal people! People I actually know! – are at Dopamine Land, having what looks like fun, taking great photos of each other. I think this is the reason it didn’t work for me: it’s not that I am fundamentally miserable or that I ruined Dopamine Land by writing about it; it’s that you need to go with other people to get the dopamine. You need other people to be happy. Surprisingly touching from the dopamine scientists of Brompton Road, actually.