Is There a Method to Achieving Happiness?

Every once in a while, I think I’ve heard enough about Stefan Sagmeister. The darling of the design community, many of his efforts have become seemingly ubiquitous in design annuals, shows, and publications. Then, he turns around something like the visual system for Casa da Música, and I’m blown away by how bright and limitless the man’s work can be. Recently, I reconnected with him to discuss his latest project: a film about happiness.

Eric: Are you happy?

Stefan: Yes, quite, in the last months I scored a 7.9 (out of 10) in July, a 7.4 in August and a 7.0 in September.

Eric: You have spent a lot of time contemplating happiness. What led you down this path?

Stefan: I was always interested in how design touches me emotionally, and eventually put a talk together titled “Design and Happiness” (which had slowly evolved out of another presentation called “Can Design Touch Someone’s Heart?”). We’ve received a lot of excited feedback about that talk. During the last sabbatical, when I looked for something meaningful to do with my time, that same subject came up again.

Stefan Sagmeister wants to give viewers a kick in the ass to explore their happiness.
Stefan Sagmeister wants to give viewers a kick in the ass to explore their happiness.

Eric: Tell me about the film you are making.

Stefan: When I did research for this film and read many, many psychology books on happiness, I found that whenever a scientist talked about something that had actually happened to her, a personal experience, I took this much more seriously than when she wrote about a survey she conducted. So I changed the direction of the film from a general documentation on the subject to focus mainly on personal experiences, hoping that viewers would have the same reaction as I had.

The film in itself will not make viewers happy (in the same way as watching Jane Fonda exercise wont make you lose weight), but I do hope that it might be the little kick in the ass to some viewers to explore these directions, like meditation or cognitive therapy.

Hopefully it will be a proper look at major strategies serious psychologists recommend that improve wellbeing; they include meditation, cognitive therapy, and psychological drugs. I will try them all out and report back on the results.

Eric: What stage is it at? When will we be able to see it?

Stefan: The film will be visually driven and should be done by fall 2013. We’ll submit it to festivals around that time.

Eric: How is the process of making a film impacting your journey to understand happiness? Is it a distraction, or is it adding to the journey?

Stefan: The film is a huge part of it! I would have never had the stamina to read 3 – 4 dozen psychology books and visit research psychologists without the project of the Happy Film on my hand. I selected the topic in part because I hoped that the journey of the making of the film would be exciting in its own right. This proved right.

Eric: Hillman Curtis was working with you on the film. All of us who had followed his work were shaken by his recent passing. How do you continue a project like this with your collaborator no longer being there?

Stefan: This was such a very sad story. And a rather odd one too, considering Hillman knew for a long while that he was not going to be alive much longer and nevertheless worked on the Happy Film right up until the end. We had talked about it and he really wanted to be part of it. We will continue, albeit of course, in a very different way as we just don’t know how to replace him or his tremendous contribution. We’ll have to make do.

A still from Stefan’s new project: The Happy Film.
A still from Stefan’s new project: The Happy Film.

Eric: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned through your exploration, so far?

Stefan: That film is really, really difficult to do, and, that my visual background amounts for very little when it comes to crating a 90 minute piece. Also, that serious effect on wellbeing can be brought on by very tenacious training.

Eric: What makes you unhappy?

Stefan: Being around a lot of unhappy people at airports (it’s infectious). Having to do things again because of bad organization. Answering long interviews. Actually, no, I like answering interviews. It’s very easy.

Eric: Have you discovered new ways to make yourself happy?

Stefan: Nothing new, just confirmation of the old: Falling in love makes me happiest.

Eric: Through your studies, is there something that you’ve uncovered, relating to how we misunderstand what we’re meant to do? Allow me to clarify: After all that thinking about happiness, is there something you see everyone else doing that makes you wonder: “Are you crazy? Why do you keep doing ____?”

Stefan:  For me, 15 minutes of running in the morning has a bigger positive impact on my well being during the following day than 30 minutes of meditation has had. When I told this to a bunch of neuroscientists at Columbia they stated very matter of fact that most authoritative research would back me up on this.

Eric: If you were to give advice on happiness—and I acknowledge that this is a tough question—is there one thing you’d suggest?

Stefan: Write down 3 things that worked for you each evening, things you might be thankful for. I started an iCal calendar that contains this and I just spend 5 minutes each night doing it. This is an exercise from Marty Seligman, the founder of positive psychology. It works.


  1. “Falling in love makes me happiest.”

    I’ve only truly fallen in love once. And I married her. To fall in love again I would have to fall out of love with my wife (slim chance). And it seems like the unhappiness in that could negate the happiness I had from falling in love in the first place. However, continuously being in love for 15 years has brought me great joy. I’m a very lucky man.

    I totally get what he’s saying about the running though. I try to go running at least every other day. And I thankfully live in a neighborhood where I can step out the front door and do a quick three mile loop.

    I actually had a stressful phone call from a family member last night so I said screw it, I’m going for a run. And I went to bed happy.

  2. @Richard: I’m not sure he meant (only) falling in love with a person. My immediate understanding was that he was talking about his film and the work he was doing on it.

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