• 06.23.14

Be Happy, Do This: Hand-Written Tips From Malcolm Gladwell, Roman Mars, And More

Design student Graham McMullin is asking one person a day to document what makes him or her happy, then testing those suggestions himself.

How do you exercise your inalienable right to pursue happiness? Graham McMullin, a student at School of Visual Arts in New York City, decided to take an experimental approach to his own quest for happiness by interviewing others about theirs.


Every day, McMullin asks one person to write what makes him or her happy on a postcard, which he’s stamped with “Be Happy! Do this.” And every day, he tries out the new suggestion himself to see if it makes him happy, too. He’s posting these written responses onto a Tumblr page, “Be Happy! Do This,” along with photos of himself trying the tips on for size. “I figured that since I struggle at times with knowing how to make myself happy, that asking other people might be a helpful exercise,” McMullin tells Co.Design. He has gotten notes from 99% Invisible podcast host Roman Mars, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, and many others.

The project grew out of a prompt from Debbie Millman, head of SVA’s Masters in Branding course, who has her students do a single task–any involving creative expression–a different way every day for 100 days. “I was really struggling to come up with an idea,” McMullin says. After many conversations with classmates and his thesis advisor, Maria Popova, editor of Brain Pickings, he realized he was getting a lot of the same advice: to simply do what makes him happy. To find out what that is, exactly, he embarked on this hybrid psychology survey, art project, and self-discovery experiment.

“The most valuable thing that this project has taught me is the importance of intentions,” McMullin says. “Through forcing myself to intend to be happy every day, I’ve realized how unnatural and difficult it is. Before I started this project I assumed that my intentions were to be happy, but I’m seeing now that wasn’t always true. I used to live much more passively.”

Both the diversity and the universality of human emotional experience come through in these responses, collected from family, friends, relatives, and total strangers, as well as illustrators, designers, and branding experts. Some get philosophical (“make something out of nothing”). Others suggest various sorts of binges (Costco hotdogs, Game of Thrones, ice cream). Lots of people recommend exercise, a known antidepressant.

Then there are the truly peculiar: “juggle three lemons,” “eat the skin of a kiwi fruit.” “This project has also taught me that happiness is creative,” McMullin says. In the positive psychology movement’s countless books, which claim to reveal the secrets to happiness, it’s probable none have recommended lemon-juggling as a potential source of joy. These idiosyncrasies, along with the visual elements of real human handwriting and colorful type, make McMullin’s project feel much more organic than these platitude-filled fix-it manuals.

[H/T Creative Review]

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.