Can You Train Yourself To Be Happy?
Mr Sagmeister in The Happy Film, attempting to pick up a woman (on doctor's orders) as part of The Cognitive Behaviour Experiment. Photograph by Ben Wolf
When someone says “graphic designer” you tend to think of a perfectly groomed person with round glasses wearing head-to-ankle black and pristine white sneakers. The kind of person who grew up colouring in between the lines. Or uses the hashtag #thingsorganisedneatly. But Austrian-born, New York-based Mr Stefan Sagmeister, although nominally a graphic designer, does not fit into this neat little grid at all. Where another designer might sit around fiddling with kerning on InDesign, he likes to carve letters into his own body (for a lecture poster he designed in 1999) or create “live” typography by sticking signs on random passers-by. When, in 2012, his company Sagmeister Inc announced it was adding a new partner, then 25-year-old Ms Jessica Walsh, and renaming itself Sagmeister & Walsh, he didn’t send out a press release but a photograph of them both, naked. He takes a year-long sabbatical every seven years. That’s the kind of guy he is.
In the course of his career, Mr Sagmeister has worked for clients as diverse as The Rolling Stones to Levi’s to the Guggenheim Museum. He’s also designed furniture, books and put on art exhibitions. But this weekend, during the Tribeca Film Festival, Mr Sagmeister is premiering a new project, The Happy Film, which he’s been working on since 2011. Why so long? “Because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. The film is a documentary featuring characteristically awesome typographic and visual experiments, in which Mr Sagmeister attempts to train himself to be happier via cognitive therapy, drugs and meditation. Judging from the trailer, it seems like production was quite fraught. Did making The Happy Film make Mr Sagmeister unhappy? “Yes, it did,” he confirms. Yet nonetheless, it seems like he learned some things. Below, we ask him to pass on a bit of wisdom about this most elusive of feelings.
I ran a NYC marathon once and even though I am clearly not sporty, after a year’s worth of training I had gotten much better at running. I wanted to find out if the same thing could be true for the mind.
How would you define happiness now?
As far as a definition is concerned, I find it helpful to think of happiness in terms of length of time: there is short-term happiness (joy, orgasms etc), mid-term happiness (satisfaction and well-being) and long-term happiness (finding what you are good for in life).
What’s your advice for being happy?
Write down three things that worked every day before going to sleep. And also, when opening the inbox in the morning, single out one mail for a special thank you/praise. And also, exercise.
In your research, what made you happiest?
I found the 20 minutes of running in the morning makes a bigger difference to my day than 40 minutes of meditation.
An EEG test. Neuroscientists at UVA ran preliminary tests to assess Mr Sagmeister's well-being prior to undergoing three experimental trials designed to make him happier. Photograph by Ben Wolf
Can design make people happy?
Right now, over 50 per cent of the world population lives in cities. For this part of the population, EVERYTHING surrounding them has been designed, from the contact lens to the cloth, the chair, the room, the house, the street, the park, the city… These pieces can be designed well or badly. They will make a difference. There are, of course, many products out there that do make our life easier, but we tend to only notice them when they fail badly. I can be in a plane going up and completely ignore the fact of what an incredible piece of design that really is. I’ll notice it when we crash.
Who’s the happiest person you know?
My friend Robert Wong, who works at Google. He was born that way.
Is there anything that has made you happy today?
Yes, running on the beach in Miami, where I’ll be speaking later on at a conference. And I found that the direct pursuit of happiness was ultimately not fruitful for me; it’s too complex a goal to be reached through a single strategy. I would say that if I’m able to create a good relationship with my friends and family, a good relationship to my work and a good relationship to something that is bigger than myself, then happiness is able to ensue.