Stefan Sagmeister’s ‘Happy Show’ at Institute of Contemporary Art
Stefan Sagmeister during the installation of “The Happy Show” exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
The quest for happiness has been the direct or indirect subject of a huge chunk of intellectual endeavor: philosophy, theology, psychology, economics and, of course, literature, which has tended to cast a jaundiced eye on the matter. “To be stupid and selfish and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness,” Flaubert wrote, “though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless.”
The world of design aims ultimately at happiness, too, through the elegance of a font or the feel of an iPhone. But a few years ago the Austrian-born graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister decided to take on the problem of happiness more directly, in much the same way he has approached ad campaigns and the celebrated album covers he has designed for David Byrne and the Rolling Stones.
“I know how presumptuous it sounds,” he said recently, smiling, in his offices on West 23rd Street in Chelsea. “I also knew I had to find a way to limit it, because it’s just too crazy-huge a problem. You could spend your whole life on it, as lots of philosophers have.”
Happiness is not a problem that Mr. Sagmeister has struggled with much personally. On a scale of 1 to 10, he rates himself a provisional 8. But in 2008, during a yearlong sabbatical in Indonesia that he chose to devote mostly to making furniture, he received some blunt feedback from a close friend. “He said if I was taking a whole year off, and at the end of it I had only some tables and chairs to show, then it would be pretty skimpy, wouldn’t it?” Mr. Sagmeister said. “And that somehow seemed true, even though I didn’t want to hear it.”
So he started to work instead on an ambitious, unusual feature-length documentary, “The Happy Film,” a kind of delivery vehicle for several years of thinking and reading about the nature of happiness. The film is not yet finished, but it has spun off an equally unusual art — or maybe design, or maybe amateur sociology — exhibition, “The Happy Show,” that opens on Wednesday at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and later travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
The approach of the show to its momentous topic can be gauged partly through one of its invitations: a thin, scrumptious-looking slice of Austrian beerwurst, vacuum-sealed in plastic, with the word “HAPPY” cut out of it.
“Because, when you get down to it, it seems that the two things that lead most quickly and reliably to happiness are having sex and eating rich, fatty foods,” said Mr. Sagmeister, who worked for weeks to perfect the sausage invitation with a fellow designer, Jessica Walsh.
But Mr. Sagmeister’s extensive reading — primarily in the field of positive psychology, a movement focused on well-being, pioneered by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania and explored by fellow psychologists likeJonathan Haidt — led him to a slightly more complex view. The conclusion he reached was that the three most widely agreed-upon routes to happiness were meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy and psychotropic drugs. He decided to spend a considerable amount of time testing each on himself, while filming the process.
“The question I wanted to answer was, could I train my mind to be happy, the same way one trains one’s body?” he said. “In running, I know that I can train as much as I want and I’m never going to break the world record for the five miles. It’s partly genetics; I’m just not built for it. But if I worked really hard, I might be able to cut my time by half. Could I do the same thing with my mind and my well-being?”
With Dr. Haidt signed on as an adviser to the film, Mr. Sagmeister began his positive-psychology self-research project in 2011 in Bali, where he went to meditate for the first time in his life, spending three months in intensive sessions.
Back in New York, he began therapy (another first), taking a camera crew to each visit. He and his therapist, Sheenah Hankin, talked about issues like the recent death of his mother, to whom he was very close, and his desire at 49 to settle down and have a family.
“The guy came in, and he was basically happy,” Dr. Hankin said. “That doesn’t happen often here.” The Philadelphia exhibition, which features an extended trailer for the film and a virtual funhouse of didactic interactive displays, functions much less like a design show than like an three-dimensional glimpse into Mr. Sagmeister’s travels in self-improvement.
“I went in thinking I was going to be doing a project with a graphic designer, and it’s only in the past few months that I’ve realized I’m doing a project, really, with a writer and poet,” said Claudia Gould, the longtime director of the Institute of Contemporary Art who left last year to take over the directorship of the Jewish Museum in New York. “Maybe he won’t end up being a graphic designer when everything is said and done.”
Mr. Sagmeister isn’t ready to answer that question just yet. He is willing to report, midresearch, that therapy seems much more effective than meditation in increasing overall happiness. But he will soon begin the final phase of the film — drugs — so the verdict is still out. The pharmaceuticals will probably be by prescription, though he had entertained the idea of sampling heroin, “because when are you going to get a chance to try something like that in a controlled environment like this?”
In an e-mail last week, he reported that he had spoken to a friend with some experience in the area and had decided that it was a level of happiness he probably could not afford. “Truly awful the first time, you just throw up, and by the time it actually gets to be enjoyable, you are already hooked,” he wrote. “I will leave it alone and stick with the pills.”